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Impression & Reflections:
Yale Alumni Chorus in South Africa:
Power of Song Tour

By Mike "Biggie" Moore
February 19, 2008

... an extraordinary adventure. The Yale Alumni Chorus began planning the trip two years ago, with concert opportunities in several cities, complementary outreach activities into the neighboring townships, and numerous side trips to see and learn about other aspects of the country.

150 singers and 60 friends gathered in Johannesburg at the beginning. It was the first time we had all been together, and we plunged into three intense days of rehearsal of the Haydn Creation with the Jo'burg symphony. At one point, the conductor asked if we knew any African songs, and we proudly affirmed that we had memorized six or more, among them Bawo Tixho Sumandla. He asked us to sing it for him, which we did, and he observed that we were half way there... Africans don't simply stand as they sing; they move. He proceeded to choreograph the song (movements from the waist up).

We performed in Linder Auditorium at Witwatersrand University to a standing room only audience. At the conclusion of The Creation, the conductor turned to the audience and introduced a black African composer sitting in their midst and celebrating his 75th birthday. He had composed Bawo. The conductor indicated that we had a surprise for him to celebrate his birthday, turned to us and we sang it with movement. By the time we finished, the audience's response had taken the roof off the concert hall as they responded with energy and glee. They had never seen white folks trying to move like black folks.

Bawo was immediately incorporated as our signature encore for every performance on the tour.

Preparation for the trip had begun in November '06 with CDs and music. After a couple of months working with them, four optional all-day Saturday rehearsals in New York City were announced for those who could get to them; one each month from February through May. We decided we ought to go at least to an early one to be sure we were on the right track with the African songs, rhythms and lyrics that were simply series of unintelligible syllables.

At the first rehearsal, Jeff Douma, the director of the Yale Glee Club who also serves as director of the Alumni Chorus, observed that we were very bass heavy, and suggested if any of us knew any sopranos who might be inclined to join us, please invite them. My daughters Mande and Hopi did, and daughter Nicole wanted to, as well, but couldn't arrange child care for breastfeeding Tate. For all of our family, the trip had profound significance as we came to know and experience first hand the extraordinary role Mande's namesake, Nelson Mandela, has played in that country.

Illegal immigration into South Africa is as challenging and perplexing as into the United States. The prosperity is an enormous magnet to millions of impoverished people from all of sub-Saharan Africa, and their impact is scary. South Africa has plenty of challenges for its own black population emerging from the apartheid era. Superimposing millions of immigrants from other parts of Africa is creating incredible strains on housing, employment, law enforcement and public services. The drive along an interstate type highway from Cape Town to the airport passes miles of shanty-town with shacks jammed in together: no running water and occasional electricity for lights pirated from very high street light poles that are a vestige of apartheid police control over the townships. The reality and presence of these circumstances magnified for us the conundrum that America and Europe face with undocumented immigrants pouring in from impoverished nations on their borders. Our spaceship Earth is clearly confronting the consequences of overpopulation, and no kinds of walls or fences or policing are going to hold back the masses of people seeking and clambering to come in. Clearly, we must marshal our best resources economic, political and diplomatic to bring less-developed countries up to productivity comparable to ours. That is an imperative implicit in NAFTA that is rarely mentioned, and crucial to the long term viability and economic health of North America. NAFTA doesn't seem to be working now, and there might not be a will to make it work. We let it founder at our grandchildren's peril. And NAFTA is only a first step: expansion to all of Central America must be next.

We visited with mothers who were selling various fabrics and artifacts on the streets so they could provide for their families in Zimbabwe. They didn't want to be in South Africa, but the economy of their home was in such disarray that they had to come simply to survive. Many Mexican and Latin American migrants are here for the very same reasons and with the very same regrets.

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg brought our own race relations into stark relief. Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned in 1964 because he was planning acts of violence to counter the state sponsored racisim. When you see the films at the museum of thousands of blacks demonstrating against apartheid in the eighties and early nineties, the images of Sheriff Clark on the Pettis Bridge outside Selma with 60 gas-masked deputies come to mind. Our American experience was a bush league version of the big league game that was playing out in South Africa.

Dr. Alex Boraine, Deputy Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke to us at one of our luncheons. The process through which the commission under Desmond Tutu's leadership navigated the aftermath of Apartheid and contributed immeasurably to healing the racial wounds of Apartheid left us wondering if a similar commission in the United States could have brought us further than we are today in our race relations. Barak Obama's candidacy is a remarkable statement about a maturing of our overall openness and acceptance of people of color, but there remains an alarming segment of our population that is left out, even chooses to opt out of the established avenues of involvement, participation and eventual ownership of the American dream.

Outreach into disadvantaged communities is a keystone of the work of the Chorus. The producers of this tour established contact with exceptional initiatives in which we were able to learn and contribute. One remarkable venture was Ubuntu Education Fund, a grass roots community organizing venture in the Zwide township next to Port Elizabeth. I visited at lunch with a caseworker in their project. I asked her who were the yodas who were imparting the community organizing methods and principals that they were using so successfully. She paused, looked at me somewhat inquisitively, and responded that they were learning them by experience. The entire organization is grass roots based, with identification of concerns and definition of solutions coming up from the community. I remember working very hard in community action in Denver in the sixties. The legislation that created the war on poverty contained a mandate for maximum feasible participation of the people served by the program, but the efforts to implement it invariably were top down: experts defined problems addressed by Head Start, neighborhood health centers, legal services, etc., and we foundered as often as we succeeded.


A rhinoceros and her young

South Africa is a remarkable country to visit. We performed in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown National Arts Festival and Cape Town, visited the Mabula Game Reserve and Cape Point Peninsula, and took a side trip at the end of the tour to visit the wine country and garden districts. The variety and diversity of the country side — prairies, mountains, ocean vistas and beaches — compare favorably with North America. Then, add game reserves where you drive up to within ten feet of a rhinoceros and her cub or a pride of lions, beaches with penguins frolicking in the surf and ... you get the picture!

The Irish Connection

On our last day in Cape Town, we went to Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden. We chanced to arrive just as a volunteer guide prepared to lead one of her tours, and we were the only ones wishing to go. Antoinette and her family had fled Zimbabwe in the exodus of white farmers in the latter part of the 20th century. Her great-grandfather had immigrated from Ireland to southern Africa when Cecil Rhodes was leading efforts by the British to colonize what became Rhodesia. As fourth generation Southern Rhodesians, they were as profoundly Rhodesian as we are American.

My great-great grandfather, Benjamin Moore, went to South Africa from Ireland in 1834 as a member of the 27th Regiment, Inniskillin Rifles that fought in the frontier wars with both Boers and Xhosas. Benjamin's oldest son, Robert, later immigrated to the United States in the eighteen sixties and staked his younger brother, Benjamin, to start Benjamin Moore Paint Company. Upon sharing our mutual heritage, we mentioned to Antoinette that we were curious about the experience of the Inniskillin Rifles in South Africa. A few weeks after our return, we received from her excerpts from a history of British military activities in South Africa in the 19th century including a specific account of the Inniskillin Rifles and a roster of the members, including Benjamin Moore.


L-R: Hopi, Mandela, Ann and Mike

Mike's email address is mikemoore@airlift.com

Griff Resor's reflections on the Power of Song Tour.


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