Just as coming to Africa has been a long dream of mine, so has singing in an African choir. My expectation was of a beautiful choir accompanied solely with drums. Unfortunately, thanks to Western influence they have replaced their drums with a horrible synthesizer which overpowers the beautiful voices and diminishes the overall effect.
It’s hard to describe the “culture” of choir here. Church services last on average 4 hours and the far majority of that time is filled with songs sung by the choir. But there is not just one choir. There is a “youth” choir, made up of men and women of all ages, a Sunday school choir, and a women’s choir and each choir sings a handful of songs weekly. It is an honour and position of prestige to sing in one of the choirs, and they take membership quite seriously. Little did I know that joining the choir would prove to be so difficult.
The first hurdle is that the church we are working with prides themselves on memorizing all the songs and therefore there are no written words. If the songs where in a language that was recognizable for me, that would be one thing, but I struggle picking up the African dialects by ear alone. So then the next hurdle is getting someone to write them down for me, but most are unconfident in their writing skills and claim “they don’t know it well enough”. It has been months now of me attending practices and still not knowing the words well enough to sing on a Sunday, which drives the choir crazy but not enough for them to help despite my asking.
Then there is choir practice. These are every Friday and Saturday afternoon. On Saturdays, choir practice is suppose to start at 2pm, and when people don’t show up on time they are scolded publically…but no one shows up on time. Except for me, until I learned better after spending 3 ½ hours waiting by myself… Practice starts when enough people show up to form a choir and that is different all the time. So the couple times they did start before I arrived, I was chastised for being late! Can’t win.
A few weeks back the Choir Master approached me because they were going to be a “guest choir” at a different church. They agreed to work with me to put some extra effort in to help me prepare and so I, in turn, agreed to have my debut. They doubled the number of practices the week leading up to it, and I filled a voice recorder with all the songs we were to sing, forced someone to write down all the songs, and was practicing day and night to try to wrap my tongue around the language. I still don’t actually know what I was singing about but at least I could mimic the words!
The lead up to the Sunday brought a lot of commotion. There was such excitement about the prospect of being a guest choir that I felt as though I was watching little kids in a chocolate factory. This excitement was magnified because they were going to have a white person singing with them. Church members were coming to practice just to see the “chindele” sing and dance (did I mention each of their songs are choreographed with African moves, which they think is hysterically funny to watch the white girl attempt…) This one guy kept going on about how much people were going to laugh and stare and how great it was all going to be…I told him he wasn’t helping my confidence with his comments.
So we met at our church on Sunday and hopped into the back of 2 pick-up trucks in the rain to drive to the other church, singing all the way. We all lined up outside the church and came marching in with our “entrance song”, but as there were 50 of us it took two entrance songs to get us all in and organized. There was also another guest choir from a third church that had been invited, and as such the church was packed. All the receiving church’s choirs, of which there were at least 5, and then the two guest choirs were each given the number of songs they were to sing. So we all took turns singing and dancing and sweating. I definitely stuck out but did my best and had sweat running down my face like the best of them.
The service started at 9 am and by about 2pm the half hour sermon was coming to a close. We were all gearing up for the end of the service and looking forward to some fresh air when the service leader announced that each choir was to sing another 4 songs each (not including the song that it takes to get up from the benches and move to the front, and then the song to return)! Each song lasts on average 8-10 minutes and most songs are only 1 or 2 verses max with a whole lot of repetition.
So after 7 hours and 20 minutes we were finally allowed to do our exit song! It wasn’t only Daryl and me who thought this was out of control, everyone in our choir was complaining. As this is a bush church, there are no toilet facilities, no place to get a drink of water, no snacks and it was hot and muggy! We figure that we heard about 50 songs in total and over 6 hours of singing.
Daryl is sure that if I wasn’t so stubborn, I would have given up on this whole choir thing months ago. But, I am glad I finally did it and have built some good friendships in the meantime. I think I am still feeling a bit shell shocked and am not sure when my next attempt will be!