Stories of an African Choir IV. From Soweto to the Royal Albert Hall

I may be walking through the streets
Of a city called London
But the dust on my boots and the rhythm of my feet
And my heartbeat
Say Africa

Although these are technically Dave Golblum’s words, made famous in the Vusi Mahlasela song, you’re probably hearing Mzansi Youth Choir’s version in your head right now. Over the years Say Africa has become something of an anthem for the choir.

“We have had a lot of success with Say Africa, both at RMB Starlight Classics and, more recently, at Royal Albert Hall in London,” says the choir’s former musical director, Ralf Schmitt. “The song perfectly captures the spirit of Africa-as-home, no matter where in the world you find yourself.”

Say Africa was the setpiece in Mzansi Youth Choir’s performance at the inaugural International Youth Choir Festival at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. The festival drew eight youth choirs from around the world to showcase the music from their respective countries, namely USA, Hong Kong, South Africa, Indonesia, UK, Norway, Latvia and Israel.

“The Royal Albert Hall is huge,” says Ralf, “not only in terms of its dimensions and seating capacity, but also in terms of the sense of occasion that performing there brings. The voices of the 24 members of the Mzansi Youth Choir filled every square inch of the space, and the choristers performed with enough heart – and voice! – to inspire the entire audience.”

To put things into perspective, the top of the hall’s dome is 41m high. That’s around 13 storeys. It’s big enough to seat 8 000 people. The first concert was held in the hall in 1871. Since then more than 30 000 performances have been staged at the venue. People who have performed or spoken at the hall include Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Elvis Presley, Stephen Hawking, Muhammad Ali, the Rolling Stones, Abba, One Direction, Pink Floyd, Adele… the list goes on.

And now it includes the Mzansi Youth Choir.

“Performing at Royal Albert Hall has been a definite highlight for the choir,” says Jannie. “Singing in front of such a large audience and mixing with young people from choirs from all over the world was a real thrill for all of us. The response was amazing. There were people crying, literally. It was a massive show for us.”

The festival provided a level playing field for all the kids, and that the South Africans were held in high regard by their peers.

“The kids at the festival treated our choristers like the rock stars they are,” says Jannie. “Their skills set, appearance, joy for life and openness were really appreciated.

“A lot of the kids in the choir from Great Britain attend top English private schools. All of a sudden these kids are talking to our kids, who are from the likes of Siyafunda Secondary in Soweto. Here, our kids were interacting with children who were far more privileged and who have seen far more of the world than they have, yet the Mzansi kids were the ones being looked up to!”

While in London, the choir also did two solo concerts and a live performance at Trafalgar Square .

True to their nature, the lack of a stage didn’t stop them from singing wherever they went. They sang in the Tube stations, in the dining hall, on the bus, in the dressing rooms – they even sang outside Buckingham Palace, where they performed their a cappella version of Justin Bieber’s Baby to the delight of an enthusiastic crowd of tourists.

“We really operate in a world of contrast,” says Jannie. “The kids will perform on a massive stage, like RMB Starlight Classics for example, in a multimillion rand production with costumes and sound and lighting and a huge audience, and an hour and a half later they’re back home, so distant from where they’ve just performed. One minute they’re singing to the RMB’s top clients, and the next they’re on the Mzansi bus headed back to their lives in the township.

“It’s such a contrast … from the dusty streets of Soweto to the glamour of the Royal Albert Hall. Just like the Say Africa song.”

The story of the Mzansi Youth Choir is about showing what’s possible. It’s about discipline, collaboration, character building and talent. Wherever this dynamic group of young South Africans go, they make massive impact – and it’s all good.


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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