Stories of an African Choir V. Building a Legacy

In early 2018, James Bassingthwaighte was appointed as musical director of the Mzansi Youth Choir. His vision is to help create well-rounded young individuals with strong theoretical knowledge around Western and African music.

Since James’s arrivial, a creative council has been formed to set a bolder vision for the choir and work together to steer it in a new direction. The council comprises James, Alfred Phakathi (creative director), Sidumo Nyamezele (choral consultant) and Monde Msutwana (vocal coach).

“All of our choristers have good ears and good voices,” says James. “We want to build on those talents. We want to give them additional tools to help them understand the deeper context and nuances of the songs they perform. We also want to develop individuals in the choir who have potential to become conductors or vocal coaches or, in fact, leaders in any field.”

Having only been with the choir a short while, James says this is the beginning of an exciting new chapter.

“There is so much potential here,” he says. “We want to become the choir that everyone talks about – and in time I’m sure we will!”

One of the areas the choir struggles with is the lack of a venue for regular rehearsals. At one stage they were rehearsing regularly at the University of Johannesburg, but the #FeesMustFall protests presented a risk that Jannie and the team just weren’t prepared to take. Since then they have bounced around a lot, holding rehearsals in church halls and community centres in and around the south of Joburg.

The ideal scenario, says Jannie, would be to have a dedicated arts training facility that the choir could call home.

“Some personal friends of ours at an architectural firm have drawn up plans for a music centre – at risk, which is an incredible gesture,” he says. “We are about to start a global fundraising drive to collect the approximately R28 million we would need to build the facility. We have identified a site in Dobsonville, Soweto, and hope to start building in 2019.

“We also want to help interested choristers to enter into a career in music. We have been able to assist a number of choristers in starting out in the world of work, but there is so much potential and Soweto is huge. Many of the surrounding townships have amazing talent. If we can create a base for music training in a broader sense, it will help not only our choristers, but also other alumni choristers to start choirs or launch careers in music.”

Soloist training, theory lessons and skills development programmes are already in place.

Jannie says there is also a need for a bursary fund to assist choristers during their schooling and with their tertiary studies – and not just with schooling-related expenses.

“Often we have to assist with unexpected items, such as clothing,” he explains. “In the old days, choristers would often arrive at rehearsal in winter shivering with cold. We would have to shoot home to get them something warm to wear. A bursary fund would cover expenses such as this.”

There is potential for the choir to perform in several local and international events over the next three to four years. These include:

  • The World Choir Games in Pretoria in 2018
  • The World Symposium of Choral Music (WSCM) in New Zealand in 2019
  • The Stratford Summer Music Festival in Stratford, Canada (followed by performances at the Canadian National Exhibition on the International Stage in Toronto) – also in 2018
  • The Martin Luther King Jnr Tribute Concert in Boston, USA, in early 2020 as guests of the Boston Children’s Choir
  • A return to the Royal Albert Hall in April 2020 as guests of National Youth Choir of Great Britain

There is also the strong possibility of performing in Japan, China and Taiwan at some point in the not-too-distant future.

In between all the travelling, the choir will be working on a documentary TV series through VIA TV for SABC1 and possibly making another CD.

The magic of the Mzansi Youth Choir has gone viral. What started as a need to help, sparked by a horrific family ordeal for the Zaaimans, has captured the hearts of thousands of people around the world. The choir brings joy and smiles to everyone who hears it, whether it be Londoners commuting on the tube,tourists passing Buckingham Palace or people sitting on the banks of the Avon River in Stratford, Canada! Every day the choir impacts many lives, introducing limitless possibilities for the choristers – possibilities that they never would have had otherwise.

“When a chorister leaves us we know we are sending a well-rounded citizen into the world,” says Jannie. “It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but at least we’ve made a positive and lasting contribution to the lives of these talented young people.”



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Stories of an African Choir – Transforming Lives Through Music

I.     A Tale of Two Choristers

II.    Genesis

III.   Giving voice to the creative economy

IV.   From Soweto to the Royal Albert Hall

V.    Building a Legacy