We drove slowly through the streets of Masiphumelele, a South African township, ever so slowly and carefully. Its residents filled the narrow streets, men hanging out in bunches on the street corners, women bustling to and fro seeming to be doing all the work, and children, as usual, playing their fast and furious street games excitedly and joyfully.
The poverty was everywhere like I knew it would be. The homes were, in fact, nothing more than corrugated cardboard lean-tos with occasional tin roofs, if they were lucky. The electricity, I could see, was hand connected to each “home” by a naked wire that ran up to a main cable stretched overhead.
Many homes had no front doors to speak of and so I could just look right into the semi-privacy of darkened living rooms. An occasional out-of-place pink stucco house would bless a street, but more often a ruin or two, too dilapidated for anybody to live in, sat empty and rotting.
(Watch the video we made… Siyahamba Project on YouTube)
Initially known as Site 5, the township was renamed Masiphumelele by its residents, which is a Xhosa word meaning “We will succeed”. In 1990, about 8000 residents lived in the area, mostly in shacks, but by 2005, it had grown to 26,000 people.
I needed to see this place. It was an experience I had to have. I was both fascinated and deeply saddened to see our brothers and sisters living in these conditions.
Two total anomalies: Every home seemed to glow with the blue light of a television and every person over the age of 14 seemed to be carrying a cell phone. I was told that these were the status of success.
In this village there is an arts center for the children run by a wonderful man named Chris April. They say when this man walks down the streets of Masiphumelele, he is just a kid magnet. In each block the kids drop whatever they’re doing and run to meet him shouting his name and walking the block with him, behind him, around him.
Every Sunday he piles about 40 of the kids into two beat-up old 9 passenger vans and drives them to the Sunday School where today I am recording them singing their hymn, Siyahamba, in their native language, Zulu. When they arrive it’s like the little clown car at the circus where the clowns just keep getting out one by one until you wonder where they are all coming from. I expect to see a manhole under the car when it drives away to park.
They had rehearsed their song for weeks with Chris and had brought their drums to play. I met Chris then, a man of around 50 years with a twinkle the size of the Milky Way and a shock of white hair on top and chin. He could have been a trim Kris Kringle. He governed his kids with an air of disciplined seriousness that totally meant business – clearly the patriarch of this family.
After church the children joined the adults in the main church edifice for the recording. We put the kids in the first 4 or 5 rows with the adults filling in behind. We tried to mix the white and black, but the black clearly out-numbered the white.
I was the Man From America that they had heard about over and over – the man from America who was coming all the way across the world just to record them. They stared unabashedly at me as if I were some god come down from a cloud. When I put my headphones on in front of them, there was a soft “oooh” of deep respect and awe. I was so “awesome” that they could not look me in the eye even for a second. As I spoke my opening comments to the gathering, 40 kids watched the floor.
I explained that we would start slowly and go over the melodies of the hymn so that anybody who didn’t know it to begin with could catch up. I played the full track so that they could hear the other churches singing their parts. That only seemed to make them more nervous, hearing the reality of what they were about to do, what they were about to be a part of. I said that when we got to the African section, they could sing along if they knew the song and I would conduct them in with a 1, 2, 3.
I played the track and when we got to their section they all joined in softly. I knew immediately that they clearly knew the song and resolved to ease them out of their shyness by rehearsing the song several times, concentrating on the adults.
After this first playing I congratulated them for learning the song so well and began to address the adults. In the 3rd row, Chris raised his hand somewhat impatiently. I called on him. He stood up and sternly addressed the children.
“I stand here deeply ashamed of you today,” he said. “This man has come all the way from America to hear you sing and record you and for what? Why did we rehearse for those three weeks to have you sing like this? Where is your spirit? We are Africans! Do you not realize this? Today you shame me. Now this time through please sing like we rehearsed and do not forget. We are Africans!” Then he sat down and turned my rehearsal back over to me.
Well there went my plan for easing them into it. So I stuttered, “Well… OK… Let’s uh… Why don’t we just take it from the top and uh… try it again, this time with a little more energy. Let’s just work on the African section of the song now.”
I started the track. Chris stood them up with a wave of his hand. When we got to my “1, 2, 3” they opened their little mouths and blew the roof off of the church. They were African. They were Africa. The sound of their voices singing in their native language of Zulu immediately filled my eyes with tears. It was a sound of ancient joy coming from the mouths and hearts of the children of Africa.
As we finished the chorus I said “Well let’s just start recording right now.” And so we did.
I was told later by several of the adult church members that though the church had long been a mix of black and white, that after the service there was always an awkwardness among the black and white adults – nothing that you could quite put your finger on, just the result of years and generations of inequality. There had previously been little socializing between races beyond warm and polite small talk.
Those barriers were broken down through the singing of this song. The black men were turning to the white men after each take and helping them with their pronunciation of the Zulu, encouraging them with their words, laughing together at their mistakes, working together to one purpose.
Afterward, as a little food was served, they all mingled and talked excitedly about what they had done together, how they had worked together, how they had so impressed the American with the beauty of their voices. The church had never been closer. This hymn about walking ‘in the light of God’ and being ‘in one accord’ had unified a church and dispelled a historic South African problem simply through the act of singing together. The children, with the help of Chris, had led the way. “And a little child shall lead them.”
That day, I was also told, three of the black men filled out membership applications to the church.
As I packed away my equipment for the last time in the now empty church, I stopped and looked around at this hallowed little space. Today it had been filled with song. Now it was empty. But now it was different. Now it was a place of unification. That day, those children, that proud African named Chris, shall remain in my memory forever.
Today we had made music together, and today we had all walked together in the light of God.
**If you’d like to watch the production of the Siyahamba Project on YouTube, please click on the link.
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