I only found out about the competition by accident. A local newspaper reported that two of the main participants in the 23rd Standard Bank Choral Music Championships had pulled out. They needed to prepare for a bigger show in a few weeks, apparently. To my mind, taking part in the championships would have been good practice.
The event was staged at the Mavuso Trade Centre, just like a miniature version of the NEC in Birmingham. The competition was sponsored by a bank whose logo is a flag in blue and white. The massive room looked like a tent, with diaphanous blue and white material gathered at a peak on the ceiling. This arrangement disguised the fluorescent tubes providing the lighting, but it made the stage quite dim and it was difficult to take good photographs. You can see the white balance is off in the photos not shot in RAW.
I persuaded Dr Srinu to come with me but I don’t think he understood what he was letting himself in for. “My goodness, it is like opera,” he said. Apart from the Korean pianist and her page turner, we were the only expats in the hall. We were ushered into VIP seats in the “stalls”, but I thought I could get better photographs by sneaking into the cheap seats closer to the stage. I didn’t realise that the VIPs were served lunch of chicken and rice.
Along the front edge of the stage there was a display of the trophies to be won. As well as prizes for the best standard and large choir, there was an award for best conductor. These were ostentatious gilt cups, supported by columns and topped with a lyre.
The team of adjudicators sat in high-backed, white armchairs, directly in front of the stage, like the judges in the X Factor. The qualifications of the two judges took up the entire back page of the programme. It was clear that this was serious stuff.
Standard category choirs (under 30 choristers) sang in the morning session, with large category choirs (over 30 choristers) performing after lunch. They each sang three pieces: one from Africa, one from George Handel and a piece of their own choosing.
The standard choirs could chose from either “Love and Hymen, hand in hand” concluding Act 2 of Hercules or “United nations shall combine” from Ode to the Birthday of Queen Anne (which earned Handel a royal pension of £200 a year). It celebrated the Treaty of Utrecht 1712, which brought to an end the War of Spanish Succession. This was followed by an African song, “Ludvumo” by Sidumo Lukhele, and another piece of their choice.
United nations shall combine
To distant climes their sound convey
That Anna’s actions are divine
And this the most important day!
The day that gave great Anna birth
Who fix’d a lasting peace on earth.
The large category choirs could choose from “Tyrants now shall no more dread,” from Act 3 of Hercules and “Wretched Lovers” from Acis and Galatea. They all did an African rendition of “Usuyizwe eMazweni” by Mbeki Mbali as well as a free choice.
All the choirs performed an African piece for their free choice. Usually, the singing was accompanied by synchronised dancing. One choir had two men out in front looking like Jake and Elwood in the Blues Brothers, doing a strange stamping routine and waving one leg around. The crowd loved it.
The choristers were all dressed immaculately. The Manzini choir members wore matching outfits made from the Swaziland flag. Men in the other choirs wore tuxedos with bowties and white shirts. The women wore matching ball gowns, blue for the Royal Swaziland Police Choir, white and green for His Majesties (sic) Correctional Services Choir.
I thought the choice of Handel’s works was interesting. The “Love and Hymen” piece is about Hercules’ jealous wife accusing him of having an affair and the “Wretched Lovers” describes a love triangle between Acis, Galatea and the cyclops Poliphemus, who bashes Acis’ head in with a boulder out of jealousy, but instead of dying, Acis is turned into a river. It is all about sex and violence. I wonder what the choristers made of it.
The Master of Ceremonies, Mzwakhe Khumalo, was a larger-than-life character who soon had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. He reminded me of lovechild of an American fundamentalist television preacher and the compère Jerry St Clair (played by Dave Spikey) in Phoenix Nights. Between choirs, he kept reminding us about the wide variety of bank accounts provided by the sponsor and their relative merits. All in siSwati. Just as we were getting bored, he would burst into song. This electrified the audience, most of whom joined in, singing along in close harmony. Some stood up, waved their hands and started dancing. Mzwakhe would only have to sing the first line of a song and the rest of the audience would immediately take it up. He would do a little dance and exclaim that “the fire was in him”. All his routines would be punctuated by cries of “Hallelujah” from the rank and file. When the next choir was ready to sing, he would have to calm the audience and remind them of the virtues of silence.
He pointed out VIPs in the audience, such as an old lady, who had been involved with choirs for the past fifty years, a man who was his choirmaster when he was a boy, and two priests, “The men of God are in the house!”
To keep our interest in the sponsor’s banking products, he invited members from the floor to answer quiz questions about various accounts. The prizes were rather cheesy: cups or shopping bags emblazoned with the bank’s logo. A chap behind me said, “That man got the question wrong and he still got a prize!” Evidently it is not good PR to send a punter back to his seat empty handed.
Most British audiences keep deathly quiet. Sneezes and coughs are suppressed. Programmes barely rustle. Here, there is usually some whispered conversation going on while the choirs are singing. If the performance is uplifting or the tune is catchy, some members of the audience will start to sing along. It is a mark of respect if people stand up and boogie to the music, almost like jogging on the spot.
After the morning session, we went out for lunch and Srinu decided not to return. I was entranced by the whole spectacle and had to go back for the afternoon. On the way in, I met the Master of Ceremonies. He introduced me to his family and I complimented him on his performance. “How do you do it?” I asked. He said the Holy Spirit was working through him.
The afternoon session began with the Five Tenors, one of whom was cringingly flat, belting out a couple of arias. Interestingly, they didn’t get much applause when they finished.
Competition between the large category choirs was very keen. They are like Premiership football clubs, recruiting players to improve the squad. One of our drivers told me that he was approached with a job offer in HM Correctional Services (as a prison officer) if he joined the choir. He sang in their choir for three years without getting the promised job, so he quit and became a driver for MSF. He did get a share of the prize money, though.
His Majesties Correctional Services Choir was technically the best and won the trophy, but the RS Police were close runners up with their free choice performance which got the crowd on its feet. Manzini choir wore the flag, but the prison officers finished off the competition with the national anthem. The Royal Swazi Sun Choir won the standard category, with my choice, Florence Catholic Church Choir, coming in second place.
I apologise for failing to publish video footage on YouTube because of copyright issues. Why should the devil have all the best tunes?