SOUTH AFRICA FOR A SONG
Philip Dickson enjoys a visit to the home of the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir as it celebrates its 40th anniversary
ON a secluded 40.5ha estate tucked into the Champagne Valley in the central Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, the acclaimed Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School is celebrating its 40th birthday.
In the shadows of towering basalt summits and flat-topped monoliths, the school’s 600-seat auditorium rings with the sounds of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s StMatthew Passion , and rocks with mighty performances in an unexpected repertoire featuring rock, pop and jazz.
There’s standing room only at this Wednesday afternoon concert; centre stage in the hushed auditorium a tiered assembly of choirboys stands motionless in tailored blue waistcoats and frilled white bibs.
As the music starts, the boys begin swaying and bobbing in a rhythmic, entertaining and ultimately electrifying performance that brings the audience to its feet.
The thrilling interpretation of African folk music, for which the boys are now dressed in vibrant vests known as madiba , and dramatic choreography evoke traditional village life set to pulsating African harmonies. As one, the audience hoots and whistles for more.
The interval in the cramped vestibule gives me a chance to plunder the tray of cakes made by the boys in their cooking classes and grab a cup of tea.
The boys are busking at the tables, singing a cappella and mingling with the visitors, but before long they return to the stage for their finale, which includes an energetic medley of traditional African songs. Starting with gentle solos and haunting harmonies, the tempo is cranked up as African drums beat out fast, intoxicating rhythms.
The lights are dimmed and night appears to fall on the auditorium as we tune into the percussive sounds of frogs, crickets, owls and even the chilling roar of a distant lion. The sound of a steady downpour produced by a bamboo rain stick and sudden thump of a bass drum have me convinced I will be drenched when I leave.
The highly energetic gumboot dancing, which originated in South Africa’s goldmines, has me out of my seat and stomping along. I learn later that the gumboots were worn underground by black miners during the apartheid era. The complex slapping of the boots and stomping of gummed soles allowed coded messages to be communicated.
Since the boarding school’s inception in 1967, this multicultural choir has sung with Luciano Pavarotti, toured with the Vienna Boys’ Choir and performed for pope John Paul II at Vatican City in front of 25,000 people.
The choir enrolled its first black pupil in 1988 and became the only multiracial choir in pre-Mandela South Africa. The school has more than 100 students aged nine to 15 who win their places with tough auditions held throughout southern Africa.
All together now: South Africa’s Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School performs