PictureThe altar and choir at São Bartolomeo in Ngofi
NOTE: The lodge reached its bandwidth quota for the month last weekend [May 26].  The lodge bought a little more bandwidth to pay bills and make bookings, but obviously my blog is not their priority!  This meant I could not post any further updates until the beginning of this month.  Again I’ll resume where I left off. I really should be able to catch up soon, since much of my time at the lodge this past week was spent in the office – so this week at Nkwichi was considerably less eventful.

MAY 13: We had a quick breakfast of a roll and some tea (liquid!) before leaving for the church.  I was so dry I had to dip my bread in the hot tea just to be able to eat it. We also filled our water bottles with very cloudy water from a well, added our purification tablets, shook the bottles and waited for a half an hour.  The water was chalky, but it was safe, and it was water.

We arrived at the church for training at 7:30, as promised in the letter. The choirmaster (that is the title one uses here) of Ngofi’s São Bartolomeo Anglican church, Mr. Chauli, came to meet us at the church at 10.  There are conflicting stories as to who did not deliver the letter telling the choir that there would be a rehearsal this day, but the most common story was that the chief had given the letter to an unknown woman who was supposed to deliver the letter to the choirmaster but forgot.  Mr. Chauli was very apologetic, but he assured us he could have the choir assembled at the church by one o’clock.  I had my doubts.  If people were working in the fields or on their boats, how would word even get to them? 

We returned to the compound to have lunch and to meet the mfumu, who seemed rather unhappy.  The mfumu of a village has multiple roles, functioning as something like the mayor, for which he is compensated (minimally) by the government of Mozambique; but he is also a counselor, representative and host to outside groups and a source of news for the village since he must travel considerably for various meetings.  The position is hereditary, but, interestingly, it goes to the eldest nephew, not the eldest son.  An aged petitioner came to the mfumu to tell him of his illness, his lack of money to treat it and how minimal assistance had been at the clinic.  The chief listened to his story, but it was clear he was not interested.  Eventually he simply got up and left, leaving the man to sit there for about five minutes.  Then the old man looked at me somewhat sheepishly and said, “So, I am going,” and left as well.  The cause of the chief’s unhappiness may have been domestic, but discretion demands that I leave some things I have heard in my travels out of my account.

When we met back with Joe at the end of lunch (he had gone into the village to collect socio-economic data, one of his jobs with Manda Wilderness Community Trust), he told us he had seen Mr. Chauli heading back to his own part of the village at one o’clock!  Nonetheless, Lily thought we should go back to the church and wait until five o’clock, since he might have been attempting to gather the group.  What else was there to do, after all?  There was a decent breeze and it was shady in the church, so it seemed like a good idea.

The church was near a popular bar. In fact, I had passed by the bar earlier in the day; and in the friendly banter in Nyanja that went back and forth, I asked a man who was singing along with the sound system in the bar why he wasn’t joining us to sing in the choir.  “Ah, no, my friend.  I prefer to drink.”  Little did I know early in the morning that I would be hearing that exact same one song blasting from the bar and making its way up the path to the church for the entire day.  Repetition is very common and very popular here, and it is not uncommon at all for people to play one song for hours on end, or to sing a song many times over as well, repeating the same verse.

The church is a lovely building of handmade bricks and cement plaster.  The banner above the altar announces that it was built in 1936.  The priest has a very loud goat tied up right outside the parsonage next door.  This goat sounds as if he is saying “NOOOOO” or “NOW!!!!” depending on his mood.  Two chickens, one pure black and one pure white, have free reign of the church.  I take a moment to ponder the symbolism.    

While waiting at the church, we take advantage of a working borehole well right outside, and dump the chalky water in favor of delicious, clear water.  I don’t know if I will ever get enough.  It’s amazing how much knowing that that source of water was there right outside the doorway affected my outlook and ability to think clearly.

PictureOur new friend. Waiting to be baptized?
At three, the noise of young children screaming and laughing came closer and closer.  A young man in his twenties burst in the main entrance of the church, followed by at least twenty children.  In this man’s hands was a leash. The leash was attached to a baby baboon, which promptly set up court at the baptismal font, to the delight of the gathered crowd. It was very cute, but Lily was afraid that the baboon would never be able to be released in the wild now that it had imprinted the young man as his parent.  The young man claimed to have found him wandering about alone, so who knows whether the baboon would have survived regardless.  After fifteen minutes of general merriment and picture taking, the crowd left, and the chickens resumed their rightful place among the pews once they ascertained that the baboon was gone.

The choir then began arriving at around four o’clock.  First had come Mr. Chauli at 3:30, who seemed very apologetic but did not think there would be much chance of rehearsal.  Lily told him if nobody came in the next half hour we would leave.  Soon, people begin drifting in in twos and threes.  By four, there are about fourteen choristers.  We start with “Mtima wanu,” the round I brought.  I started with it because it is a nice, simple melody and seemed like just the right message to start rehearsal.  The group picked up the melody and words quickly, but it soon became clear that a round is NOT in the tradition of the area at all.  The group does not understand singing a piece without harmonizing, let alone part of the group waiting while another part starts to sing – they begin harmonizing independently almost immediately.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at explaining how a round works, I want to start over yet again; but I remind myself that I am not here to force unasked-for musical ideas – and the fact is, the harmony is still tonic and dominant, so the “round” could still work, even if it means various villages come in at various times and sing their harmonies.  I set the piece aside and move on.

Next we do “Chauta,” which is much more successful.  We don’t have time to learn the verses, but we get the refrain down very well.

After this I learn just how much choirs are the same the world over.  Mr. Chauli says that these songs are very nice, but how will they help them in the competition?  Lily explains that these are the two pieces that all the choirs will perform together, so it is necessary that all choirs learn them while I am in each village.  I point out that we would have had much more time, but the letter confusion meant that we were down from five or six hours to one.  I offer to see one of their pieces, which they perform for me.  It is difficult to critique because not everyone is there, even of the twenty who will be at the festival (in fact, Ngofi has 82 choristers in two ensembles when they are all there), but I do offer a few constructive criticisms.

Their attention then turns to the Choral Festival itself, and their questions go to Lily and Joe.  Why can’t the festival be in Ngofi, like the canoe races, and not so far away?  Will the food be good this year? Who will the judges be and are they qualified?  Does the choir really have to keep to the required maximum limit of twenty singers at the festival?  The two answer the questions calmly and politely.

At this point, we say farewell to one another, and the three of us head back to the compound.  The bar has changed songs; apparently there is one song that they play all day, and another they play all night.  Thankfully, the sound fades and disappears before we get back to the chief’s.

I cannot tell if our hour together was beneficial to the chorus or not.  Lily seems to feel it was successful, especially given the time we had.  Joe tells me he likes the second song, “Chauta.”  And so my first meeting with a choir in Africa comes to an end.    


Comments are closed.


    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013