Mail & Guardian

Portraits of the small histor

An Iziko exhibition turns the spotlight back on an all but forgotten choir whose members were key in helping to shape South Africa’s future

- Fumbatha May

Ahuge crowd has turned out for the opening night of the African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined exhibition at Iziko National Gallery, presented by the gallery in conjunctio­n with the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR).

It is the night before Women’s Day and, a short way down the road, the protest eisteddfod (as my friend Pam calls it) is in full swing outside the houses of Parliament, while votes for the eighth vote of no confidence in the country’s president are being counted.

Inside Iziko, however, we can hardly hear igwijo lomzabalaz­o as we eagerly await the end of the speeches. We want to hear the music.

Although it includes photograph­y, the main element of this exhibition is the musical interpreta­tion of the songs that the African choir performed on their tour, composed by Philip Miller and Thutuka Sibisi who worked from a surviving programme from 1891 and not the original music.

“Even though in the 1890s there were wax recordings of music, none were made of ‘The Choir’, so there is no correct way of hearing them,” says Miller about the “re-imagined” part of the exhibition.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” I think to myself, as I wonder which tracks they might have chosen from the canon of Xhosa hymns that the Jubilee Chorus — “the African Choir” or “the African Native Choir” — is said to have performed during their two-year tour of the British Isles.

When the speeches are finally concluded and we enter the hall in which the exhibition is housed, I quickly scan the track list for the recording and I see “Ulo Thixo Omkhulu” printed on the wall. My heart soars and sinks almost simultaneo­usly as I spot the spelling error in the prefix.

John Knox Bokwe’s compositio­n, UnoThixo Omkhulu, is one of my favourites even though I no longer consider myself religious or Christian. It’s one of those wonderfull­y layered sonic a cappella soundscape­s that is typical of Xhosa choral compositio­ns made when musical instrument­s were hard to come by and composers improvised with voices.

“Aaaahh-haaaa-hooooom-na ahhom-hom-na”, I sing under my breath, my baritone ever ready to go as low as I need to. Nope, they have done something different to it. I wait for the line: “unoThixo omkhulu/ osezulwini/ ongoyenaye­na/ ikhakha lenyaniso”, but it never comes. Oh well, they did say “re-imagined”. But couldn’t they fix the spelling on the track list?

Understand­ably, in archival records that is how the title of the compositio­n is written, but anyone can see it’s an obvious typo. Such typos are almost characteri­stic of all Xhosa transcript­ions of the time and the decades after.

“Ewe, le nto kakde yinto yaloo nto./ Thina, nto zaziyo, asothukang­a nto” (sic?) acknowledg­es famed poet Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi in the opening line of his 1943 poem, Ukutshona kukaMendi (The Sinking of the Mendi). For 70 years, no one has ever thought to correct “kakde” to “kakade” and it is still reprinted like that to this day.

But Sibisi was right in his speech, the singers on the recording give their all and it is glorious, a sonic perfection that is almost equally matched by the reproducti­on of these 126-year-old portraits, now blown up to a largerthan-life size. At this scale, they reveal a mischievou­s mirth behind the eyes of 18-year-old Charlotte Mannya that I had not noticed before.

The images first received worldwide attention as a result of an article in The Guardian on pictures of Victorian-era black people, which went viral and intrigued us all. The selection at Iziko, however, is limited only to a handful of individual portraits of the singers. Handsome men draped simply in the light blankets of the style typical of the Xhosa of the time, some in full peacock mode with elaborate headgear and strings of beads adorning their faces. Beautiful women with slightly less elaborate accessorie­s, looking as though to the manner born.

“[Mrs Eleanor Xiniwe] is a young lady-like, native woman, the regularity of whose features despite her sable complexion, vies with most European faces, and who has dignified and rather stately manners,” proclaimed The Illustrate­d London News of August 29 1891 in a caption accompanyi­ng a portrait of Xiniwe at the time.

Renée Mussai, curator and head of archive at Autograph ABP, informs us in her speech that the images were discovered in the vast Hulton Archive — the rest of the physical collection of the images is in the Getty Images collection.

Missing from the Iziko selection are the group photograph­s, which include the promoters Walter Lety and James Balmer, who also served as the choir’s musical director on the tour. Also missing are the photograph­s of the singers in traditiona­l Victorian dress.

The choir arrived in London sometime during the northern summer of 1891, ostensibly to raise funds for a new technical school to be built in Kimberley and to alleviate the plight of mineworker­s on the diamond mines. The money was raised not only by giving performanc­es but also by giving public talks on life in South Africa, which fascinated members of Victorian society no end — and which earned speakers like Mannya and Xiniwe a guinea each time they were asked to speak.

According to Margaret McCord, the daughter of Dr James McCord, who was Charlotte Maxeke’s (née Mannya) employer, within four days of their arrival, they performed at the Crystal Palace as part of the last public celebratio­n of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. They were then invited to deliver

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 ??  ?? For posterity: The 126-year-old pictures are an incredible record of the tour to Europe by the African Choir. Paul Xiniwe and Eleanor Xiniwe (above) and members of the African Choir (far right) pose for a group portrait with their English musical...
For posterity: The 126-year-old pictures are an incredible record of the tour to Europe by the African Choir. Paul Xiniwe and Eleanor Xiniwe (above) and members of the African Choir (far right) pose for a group portrait with their English musical...

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