PictureThe mfumu of Utonga is mending his net in the back. Mr. Richard, my guide, is in front, and the chief's son is behind him.
JUNE 2:  This hike was very different from the others thus far.  This path was rocky and hilly, with many more trees – though not much more shade.  The sun was as usual quite bright, but I remembered sunscreen where I had forgotten it the day before in the haste to get to the funeral in Cobué.  I only needed my water once I got to Utonga.  This was a six-mile hike, too.  Maybe I am adapting!

The chief in Utonga is a fisherman and was mending his nets outside his house.  His wife was weaving a long thin strand of palm leaves, about five or six inches wide but many feet long.  Richard, my guide and translator for this trip, told me that this would be cut and sewn together to make a floor mat for sitting or sleeping.  This being a Sunday afternoon, various friends and relatives came by the house to visit at all times.    

PictureThe soccer "field" in Utonga. The wooden goalposts are hard to see in the very center of the photo. This is one of the nicest soccer fields I have seen in a village, with most stones being smaller than six inches.
We had a typical Manda Wilderness on-the-road lunch of spaghetti and tomato sauce, mixed with canned tuna.  It was prepared at a relative’s house two homes down from the chief.  Half an hour after lunch we headed to the church.  The church is laid out differently here, perhaps because it is situated on a hill.  The center aisle is dirt and sand, as is one small section of the rear; I wonder if this is where the children sit?  There is no rear entrance, only an entrance on each side.  Two choirmasters met me today for their training, as did five members of the choir who did not hear that today was just training for the choirmasters.  They all stayed and listened to the session nonetheless.

Utonga choir has a unique system of leadership.  The group has four choirmasters, but the choirmaster’s job is only to start a piece.  Actual rehearsal of a piece, teaching parts, correcting rhythms, listening for balance etc. goes to someone with the title of “coachmaster.”  They have three people in this role. I have not encountered this system in any other village, and my guide for this trip, Richard, who is quite experienced in choral matters here and in Malawi, has not heard of it either.

The choirmasters both have excellent questions regarding balance and blend, since they have many more sopranos than other voice parts (isn’t that so often the way?).  I give them various ways to help the sopranos learn to listen to the other parts, and I tell them they should stop the sopranos when they stop listening and sing too loud.  They will get the message soon enough!  The choirmasters also wonder how they can get their five altos to sing a little louder.  Based on my experience thus far with the other choirs, I tell them first and foremost to check and make sure that they are not singing along with the tenors.  They did think it possible that some altos were singing wrong parts, either soprano or tenor.  And speaking of tenors, they wanted to know how to get them to blend better.  From the sounds of what they were describing, it had to do with breathing too high, which I said I would cover with the group the next day.

I explained the role of choirmaster as I had seen it in the other choirs.  I suggested that they consider rotating, with one person taking the job of choirmaster for a piece while the other three serve in the new title of “section leaders,” one for each part that the choirmaster did not normally sing.  Though they told me they were already using section leaders their current system. I asked them how it was working out for them.  They said it might be time to give a different system a try.

Once they understood that their choirmasters could remain in front of the ensemble and take both previous leadership roles, they had excellent questions about using hand signals to “speak” to the choir during rehearsals and performances!  These were some of the best questions I had had to date about the potential of the choirmaster’s position.  They encouraged me to help them learn how to use these signals (loud, soft, expression, balance, tuning, etc.) in tomorrow’s rehearsal.  They also asked me what I am recognizing are going to be the standard questions regarding the festival and its judges and fairness.  All in all, it was a very productive session, and we ended up spending almost three hours together!  I found this ironic because I would not have thought meeting with the choirmasters before having heard the choir and watched them work together would have been very productive.  Once again, I need to let go of my own expectations and learn to go with what happens in a given situation.

After dinner, I learn there is no borehole well in Utonga, so I had best ration my water a bit.  So far, I feel fine.

JUNE 3: Rehearsal today is not scheduled to start until half past nine, so Richard and I have all sorts of time to chat.  He forgot to bring bread on the trip, which is fine with me, since I always find it too dry to eat well when on the trail – especially if I am rationing water.  We do have bananas, which I normally despise, but of necessity I eat one.  These are very different from the ones at home!  They are a quarter the size, and they have a drier, meatier texture, not that slimy texture I can’t stand.  I end up having two, which is probably a banana record for me.  He pours the tea for me, and once again I face the concern that I am not taking sugar.  We take a few sips.  “Why do white people not like sugar?” he asks me.  I assure him that most do, many even in their tea; but we do tend to eat our sugar in different ways than I have encountered here in the villages. Richard also explains to me how the palm leaves are woven.  He is even able to demonstrate; he must have watched his mother when he was little because he tells me men generally do not know how to do it.

Finally, he tells me his dreams as a musician.  He was a very successful choirmaster for fifteen years in Malawi, but he moved back to Mozambique to take care of his parents.  He has been in Mozambique for seven years – four of those working at Nkwichi in a job he likes very much.  As with all musicians, though, his heart remains with the music.  He was choirmaster at Uchesse before getting this job at the lodge; indeed, the chief there spoke very highly of him when I was there.  He even tried to get a choir going at Nkwichi among the employees; but nothing has happened, probably because it would mean people would have to stay away from their families even longer in order to practice.

In his spare time, he wants to return to performing, recording and composing.  He has some excellent ideas and questions about marketing.  In truth, music could be an excellent export product, since it would not involve transportation costs.  The difficulty would be getting the music online and getting the royalty payments to the musicians, since there is no bank for 150 kilometers.  Still, if these not insignificant issues could be solved, it could be a wonderful way to further expand the local economy. However small the money generated, it would be money coming from outside the region.  I tell him I will help in whatever way I can, and I will give him my contact information before I go.

We head to the church at twenty to 10.  One of the choirmasters, Mr. Lembalemba is there, but he is the only one.  For a while, only five or so more are present.  Then the choir comes in rapidly, even without ringing the bell.  By ten o’clock, we have seven sopranos, four altos, three tenors and three basses.  Not bad!

We work on breathing, posture, expressivity in the face, and ways for the choirmaster to communicate during a piece.  Breathing and posture are difficult, because the entire church has only three pews.  Normally, the men take two of them and the altos take the other one, since they are mostly women and the sopranos and the sopranos mostly girls; but because Richard and I are there, we take the other pew and all the women sit as the sopranos normally do, on a bamboo floor mat with many slats missing, feet straight out in front of them, which of course affects their backs.  I have them try kneeling while singing (using their sandals as knee pads), then sitting normally during breaks.

We work on balance by having everyone stand and having the women face the men.  Can they hear the basses?  They say they can, but I am not convinced.  I have the altos, tenors and basses sing, and I point out to the sopranos how soft the low notes of the basses are relative to the rest of the piece.  Now, when they sing, can they listen for these low notes?  The balance is then much better, as is their tone production.  By the end of the rehearsal, Mr. Lembalemba is standing in front of the choir for the entire piece.  The sopranos begin to get to loud, and he makes a gesture to them that I had taught.  The sopranos respond, and balance is restored!  I have to say this was one of my favorite moments thus far in choir training.

We learn “Chauta,” but they are too tired and too proud of their accomplishments for me to introduce the entirely new concepts of “Mtima wanu.”  We move to the video portion. Without much comment from me, they are dismayed by what they see in movement and facial expression; they ask me if they can try again immediately.  Indeed, the second video shows that they learned much from what they saw.  I really enjoyed working with this group.  I wish them well at the festival, and we part ways.

We decamp and start to head back.  I felt really good yesterday, and this day started out well; but I guess two consecutive days of six-mile hilly hikes with my heavy backpack are a little more than I can handle right now.  Due to water rationing, I am quite dehydrated, even though I saved about a pint of water and am drinking it on the way.  I remind myself that four people at Nkwichi make that round trip journey from Utonga every day that they work.  This always helps me keep things in perspective, though it never makes things easier.

Richard is a fast hiker!  We got back in an hour and forty-five minutes, where I had been told that it was a two-and-a-half hour hike to Utonga.  That must be what’s getting to me, I tell myself.  Yeah, that’s it.

 We get back and I drink an entire bottle of water that is always left in each of our huts. Next, I have a long shower.  My laundry has not come back since I left; so as in the villages, I do some of my own in the lake and put it on rocks to dry before the sun is too low in the sky at five o’clock.  Then I hang it on a bamboo rafter in my hut to finish drying.

With Ngofi, Uchesse, Chigoma, Mataka, Chicaia, Khango and Utonga, I have now worked with seven of the fifteen villages.  I was scheduled to work with Mala tomorrow, but they have postponed until they can find a better date – again because of conflicts with schooling for the younger singers.  Now it is time for my first “visa run” to Likoma.  When I get back, I begin to work with the inland villages.  I wonder what life is like here without the sight or sound of the lake in the background.  This is something I have not yet encountered in any of my time here!


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013