PicturePart of the view from the compound; again, the picture does not do justice to the beauty of the actual panorama. That is Chissindo Mountain on the horizon.
JUNE 23: We left Mandambuzi fairly early this morning.  It is Sunday, and we want to arrive in Litanda early enough to attend the church service and hear the choir.  The church is a little further into Litanda than we had hiked in the previous two days, so it takes a bit of time.  We arrive to find three people sitting outside the church.  Joe asks what time the service begins.  “Nine,” they say.  It is 9:15.  As we are sitting one of the people waiting, who turned out to be the lay leader who would lead the service, takes our backpacks and puts them behind the altar – but not before I ask him to wait a second, so I can take out my bible.  I had bought a Chichewa bible in Lilongwe when I was there so that I could study and find passages for choral music.  This was the bible that I had used to find the words to “Chauta.”  I had noticed that people brought their bibles to church here to follow along with the readings, and I wanted to do this, too.  When I pulled out my bible, though, the lay leader immediately asked if I wanted to do one of the readings for the morning. “Aaaa!  Iyayi!” No!  I said.  It actually would have been fun to try if I had had time to prepare, but many of the words in the bible are too complicated for my pronunciation, and I would not want to put the congregation through the ordeal of their reader sounding out the words in front of them.  I will be happy just to follow along.

People very slowly begin to gather, and the service begins around 10.  Because it was a lay service it was quite brief – about an hour and a half.  There were about eighty of us present, approximately thirty in the choir!  Most of the congregation is very young; this day, almost all are in their teens or younger.  My guess is that most adults are again busy with rice harvesting; the mountain villages appear to be responsible for most of the rice production of this region.  During the service, when I introduced myself in Nyanja, one of the adult women who was present ululated after my speech.  These small cultural gestures of welcome always make the day a good day instantly and naturally affect my impression of a place.  I am liking Litanda already.

After church, we camped at a house directly across from the fish farm.  The Wilderness Trust helps to fund projects decided by the local communities, and several people in Litanda asked for a fish farm to provide fish for the village, a source of protein that is popular but expensive there.  With assistance from US AID and from volunteers at the trust who provided expertise in fish farming, a committee of about fifteen from the village, along with Mr. Joe at the Trust, dug two ponds and built an office building over the course of the past year.  The ponds have begun to fill up very nicely and are now ready for their fish.  The fingerling fish for stocking the pond are scheduled to arrive soon, and the Trust will go and pick them up when they get there.  The compound where we will stay tonight is slightly up the hill from the road and has a spectacular view of the broad valley.  Two of the members of the fish farm committee live in this compound.    

PictureThe door of the home of our host in Litanda. Many doors have such decorative patterns.
For lunch we have some of the fresh rice that the chief of Mandambuzi had given us on the way out of the village.  I have to admit that rice was never something I had ever thought of as possibly being fresh; but now that I have had some, I won’t ever forget that it can be!  The family has cut some limes for Joe to squeeze into his tea.  He has not been feeling well for some time now.  Maybe the citrus will help improve his bad cold.

At two we head back to the church.  This is the first ensemble I have encountered here that has better dancing and presentational skill than it does singing.  We work first on starting and stopping together.  The three more experienced sopranos do not begin the songs together, and the men do not always end with everyone else.  We next start our work on breathing techniques to improve the tuning of the sopranos.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, the choirs here tend to move sharp over the course of a piece; some groups modulate upward as much as a perfect fifth!  However, all other groups have all tended to sharp together, at least staying in tune within the ensemble.  In this ensemble, however, the sopranos tend to always be a bit more sharp than the rest of the group, with painful results at times.  One of the older men in the group is the former choirmaster, and he thanks me during the question and answer period for addressing these issues.

Another first I have encountered in this village: the choirmaster does not snap!  Hallelujah!  In all other villages, the group gets started on a song in the following fashion: first the dance begins, either from the choirmaster or from experienced sopranos in the front row who are told which song it will be.  Next, the choirmaster sings the beginning notes or phrase of each part from top to bottom, usually at least twice.  Then, when the choirmaster feels the group is ready, he or she snaps fingers loudly, often right in the faces of the youngest sopranos.  This is their cue to begin the piece in two beats or so.  I am really happy to find a choirmaster who does not snap.  In place of this rather harsh method of beginning, he says quietly “Stot” [start] so that only the sopranos can hear.  They are having some trouble with this novel method, but I praise him profusely in front of the group for this innovation, hoping that it can start a new trend.  If he can get it to work it is going to seem to the other choirs who see them that the choir started as if by magic.  I have no doubt it will catch on if that happens.  At tomorrow’s choirmaster meeting I want to make a special point of helping him to get this to work.

The remainder of the rehearsal follows what has become the more usual routine: the videos, the feedback, the standard comment about the judges and fairness, the speeches and the farewells.  I look forward to tomorrow’s meeting with the choirmaster and make a point of telling him so before we leave.

From our vantage point up the hill, we watch a beautifully giant blood-orange full moon rise over Chissindo Mountain far in the distance.  Joe has pointed out to me the single mountains across the valley where the farthest villages in the Manda Wilderness are, those of Luiga and Chissindo.  I have a hard time imagining getting that far by any means of transportation I have experienced.  We watch hunters burning brush on distant Luiga Mountain.  They use this technique to flush their quarry.  Joe is surprised that this is happening this early in the year, since they do not usually begin doing this until September.  As night falls, the children in the compound and one of the fathers are singing “Chauta” together.  It’s going viral!    

JUNE 24:  Mr. Paulino, choirmaster, came to the compound this morning.  He has dressed formally for the occasion, complete with suit jacket and a very nice cap, and has arrived shortly after eight; we were scheduled to meet at nine!  Clearly the meeting is important to him, and I am glad I had planned to put on my nicer hiking clothes for the journey today.  Together we have a breakfast of tea, rice and Maria biscuits in the front room of our hosts.  Then we adjourn to the front dooryard for our meeting.  His first question is about the sopranos starting together.  Once again I praise his starting method.  Among the other ideas I offer, I suggest he practice with the sopranos alone and tell his three starting sopranos “I so want you to be able to learn this way of doing things so I don’t have to give your solo to someone else.”  I said to watch how fast things improve after that!  He also is having trouble with the basses not being together in the dance, but this is a more difficult problem.  He is quite young (maybe early twenties), and the basses are all considerably older than he is.  Add to this the fact that he has only been choirmaster for three months, and he is simply not comfortable addressing the issue directly, which would involve publicly correcting people older than himself.  I tell him I understand and recommend that he try the circle rehearsal method.  When it becomes clear to the ensemble what is happening with the basses and their dancing, some of the older singers in other sections will certainly be comfortable with speaking to them about it.  He will have addressed the problem without having to take care of it by direct confrontation of his elders.

As we are speaking together, Joe suddenly stood up and bolted toward the road, saying, “I will be right back!” as he ran down the lane.  Needless to say, Mr. Paulino and I were somewhat nonplussed at this.  A few minutes later, though, we understood when a truck came lumbering up the lane.  Lily was driving it, Ines who volunteers at the Trust was in the passenger seat, and in the back of the truck were Doctor Peg and a patient writhing in pain.  “Malungo,” [malaria] Mr. Paulino says knowingly.  I am not so sure.  Lily and Ines jump out to let us know what is happening, while a water pump gets unloaded for the fish farm project.  Together they will all go to Lichinga to get treatment for this patient that they picked up along with Doctor Peg in Cobué.  Next they will spend two days getting supplies for the Trust, followed by picking up the fingerling fish and bringing them back to release into the pond.  After this quick update, they spring back into the truck and head down the road toward Mandambuzi.  We all sit down again and continue our meeting.

Mr. Paulino wants his choir to begin coming on time for rehearsals!  Can I believe my ears?  I tell him that the Festival provides a great starting point.  He can simply let the choir know that if any member is late a certain number of times, he or she will not be allowed to go to the festival.  The ensemble knows he has to reduce the number of attendees to twenty from their current thirty, so they should know this is not an idle threat.  Attendance should improve right away.

He thanks me for my help and I let him know that I think he has a lot of potential as a choirmaster, with some good ideas and leadership ability.  Joe and I had already taken down our tents and loaded our supplies before breakfast, so Mr. Paulino takes up my pack and we walk together about a mile until we reach the path towards Mbueca.  Joe assures me the path will be much easier on the way back.  I hope so!    

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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013