Friday, July 22, 2016

Concert in Thembalethu

After our day exploring the area surrounding Oudtshoorn, we headed back toward George and the township of Thembalethu, where we were scheduled for a joint concert at the United Reformed Church. We arrived late afternoon and were met by our hosts, who greeted us and gave us an opportunity to rehearse before making a quick costume change on the buses in preparation for the concert. The church was surrounded by a fence and razor wire, a common sight throughout South Africa, but one that was always jarring. Each town, each house–surrounded by walls, fences and wire. The space inside the church was smaller than the church in Soweto but warm and welcoming. There was an arrangement of objects on the floor at the front whose significance we could only guess at. Chairs for choir members were draped in white cloth and red ribbons–a place of honor for us.  No matter how long the day, singing is revitalizing and we were excited to experience the voices of another South African choir.

Part of each concert involved a short (or long) church service. The pastor talked about "Ubuntu" which translates roughly to "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity." Sitting in a church in South Africa and being reminded of our human connection was powerful. My mind wandered back to the States, thinking about the political campaigns and general fractious climate. We had just learned that police officers had been gunned down as payback for lives that had been lost at the hands of law enforcement. Our hosts made reference to those events and offered their condolences and support. They have known injustice and so have we and that connects us, too.

The concert "Program Director" was introduced, brought in especially for the occasion. She was young and spirited and seemed to take her cue from reality TV shows like "The Voice" or "America's Got Talent." She told us that she hoped we brought our "A" game. This was both amusing and a little disconcerting and Jeff immediately started thinking about how to take control of the mic during our portion of the concert so that we could avoid commentary following each song. He was successful!
Their choir was wonderful–exuberant singing, as we had come to expect, and colorfully adorned. Dancing and percussion are a part of everything. Our western, European style of choral singing is so different. The contrast is especially evident when sharing a stage.


The concert ended, we said our farewells, then boarded the coaches and headed out to have a bite to eat before returning to our hotel in Mossel Bay. We departed the next morning for Cape Town. More on that to come.


Following our day in Knysna, we ventured over the mountains to Oudtshoorn, where we visited Cango Caves and an ostrich farm (both a little ways outside of town) on Friday, July 8. To get there from Mossel Bay/George, you travel by way of a road that hugs the mountain. It winds up and around, with beautiful views in all directions as you make the ascent. (Some of us preferred not to look down.)

Once on the other side, the landscape changed dramatically. The area is semi-arid but does have agriculture. We passed many ostrich farms and a few small vineyards en route to Oudtshoorn.

The Cango Caves are located in Precambrian limestones at the foothills of the Swartberg range in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. The main cave is the best known. Although the extensive system of tunnels and chambers goes on for over two and a half miles, only about a quarter of this is open to visitors. Many of the caves have been closed to protect them from the changes that come when people are permitted access.

Cango Caves offers a historic tour (which we took) and an adventure tour which, frankly, didn't sound that appealing. You end up making your way through small openings which, when described, sounded something like the process of being born. Chambers were illuminated one by one as we entered, with dramatic effect. Once we circled back to the main chamber, we stopped and sang Pavel Tchesnokov's Salvation is Created. Coincidentally, one of the formations in that chamber is known as the "pipe organ." The chamber was once home to a concert series but it was ended after audience members wandered off and defaced areas of the caves, scrawling graffiti and doing other damage. The stage was still there with risers built in for a choir.

After our cave exploration, it was time for lunch at a nearby ostrich farm. The farm itself was built into the side of a hill and had many beautiful flowering plants (even for winter). We started with a little history about the ostrich before making our way outside to see them up close. Ostrich feathers were all the rage in the early part of the 20th century, but with the arrival of the automobile, ostrich-adorned clothing and hats were no longer practical, as feathers had a tendency to fly off in all directions. Today, ostrich meat and leather are the main products for which they are raised. If you've never eaten it, ostrich meat is much like beef, minus the fat and cholesterol. Ostrich skin makes one of the most durable leathers in the world and is considered a luxury item. We wandered outside and saw some ostriches in their pens and were given the opportunity to ride one (weight restrictions do apply). One brave singer among us gave it a go. After watching how challenging it is to ride an ostrich, others in the group decided it was an opportunity they were willing to forgo.

Then it was time for lunch. As I'm sure you've guessed, ostrich was on the menu. It was delicious, as were all the accompaniments. I'm told that ostrich meat is available here at home. Here's a recipe to try (we couldn't get the recipe for the dish we had at the farm–family secret).

Marinated Ostrich Steak

YIELD:4 servings

    •    3/4 cup vegetable oil
    •    1/3 cup soy sauce
    •    1/4 cup cider or white wine vinegar
    •    3 tablespoons lemon juice
    •    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    •    1 tablespoon ground mustard
    •    1 teaspoon salt
    •    1 teaspoon pepper
    •    1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
    •    1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
    •    4 ostrich or beef tenderloin steaks (4 ounces each)


1. In a resealable plastic bag or shallow glass container, combine the first 10 ingredients; mix well. Add meat to marinade and turn to coat. Seal bag or cover container; refrigerate overnight, turning meat occasionally. Drain and discard marinade. Broil or grill, covered, over medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn and cook 6-8 minutes longer or until meat reaches desired doneness (for medium-rare, a meat thermometer should read 145°; medium, 160°; and well done, 170°). Yield: 4 servings.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Knysna and the Featherbed Nature Reserve

Following our visit to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve north of Johannesburg, we flew south to George to experience South Africa's Garden Route. We arrived at George Airport as the sun was setting and drove south along the coast until we reached our beach-front hotel in Mossel Bay.  The weather was decidedly cooler and the landscape even more dramatic–mountains and lush greenery (even in winter) reaching down to the Indian Ocean. Dinner was waiting for us at the hotel, made lovingly by Gregory, the hotel chef. He worked for many years cooking on oil rigs and said he learned to cook from his mother. It has been his passion for over 50 years.

On Thursday, July 7, we made our way north to Knysna, a beautiful coastal town that is home to the Featherbed Nature Reserve, a short ferry ride across the lagoon. South Africa has the third-highest level of biodiversity in the world, and is the only country to contain an entire floral kingdom. Read more.

We had a little time to walk around Knysna and have a bite to eat before making our way to the waterfront and the ferry. Several of us opted for lunch at Chatters Bistro, where we sat outside and thoroughly enjoyed pizza and pasta, South African style.

At the Reserve, we had an opportunity to see some of South Africa's unique plant life, rock formations, and incredible views of the ocean and Knysna Heads, where two dramatic cliffs guard the narrow entrance to the lagoon. They are infamous for the number of boats that have been lost trying to pass through its unpredictable currents. Visitors to the Reserve ride up to the top of the cliffs and have the option to walk back down along a well-established trail or ride back. 

The natural beauty of South Africa is breathtaking. Since we were visiting in winter, we saw fewer plants in flower, but it also meant that we probably saw more animals at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, who would normally seek relief from the hot sun by resting in the shade–away from curious onlookers. The solution to this is, of course, to return and spend more time exploring!

Our guides, Pieter and Juanita Myburgh

We left Featherbed late in the afternoon and had dinner in Knysna along the waterfront before heading back to Mossel Bay and our hotel. An early wake-up call was again in order for the next day. The itinerary included a visit to Oudtshoorn, over the mountains, where we would explore Cango Caves, followed by lunch at an ostrich farm, returning to George for an evening concert at the United Reformed Church in Thembaletu.

I end with a poem by South African poet Antje Krog. Our experiences in South Africa had me wrestling with its history of Apartheid and continuing struggles with race, class, and poverty, against the backdrop of its sheer natural beauty. Obviously, this is not unique to South Africa. Here at home we also face similar challenges. Our own Civil Rights movement was at its height during Apartheid in South Africa. We passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and South Africa put an end to Apartheid in 1994. And yet, there is still so much left to do.

my beautiful land

look, I build myself a land
where skin colour doesn’t count
only the inner brand of self

where no goat face in parliament
can keep things permanently verkramp*

where I can love you,
can lie beside you in the grass
without saying ‘I do’

where we sing with guitars at night
where we bring gifts of white jasmine

where I don’t have to poison you
when foreign doves coo in my hair

where no court of law
will deaden the eyes of my children

where black and white hand in hand
can bring peace and love
in my beautiful land

Antje Krog


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bakabung Lodge and Pilanesberg Game Reserve

By Wendy Browder, choir and board member

 South Africa–never in a million years! And yet, that is exactly where I found myself on July 1st of this year.  Thanks to the mission of Singing City Choir to bring people together through music, I found myself on the adventure of a lifetime.  We shared amazing magical musical moments with choirs from places like Soweto and Thembalethu, and we had the golden opportunity to see animals of South Africa in their natural habitat.  I literally kept pinching myself with the realization that I was really there, in a special vehicle, driving around looking for wild animals. And, we found them! The Philly Zoo, the oldest in the US, is wonderful, but it will never be the same as seeing zebras, rhinos, hippos, etc. in the wild.

Our rooms at the Bakubung Lodge in Pilanesburg were exceptional.  We arrived late afternoon on July 4 and woke up early the next morning to head out on a game drive in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. The lodge where we had our meals was elegant, yet rustic. And, the food was delicious. There were signs on the fence just yards from my room saying elephants come up to the fence, stay back (or words to that effect).  While we didn’t see elephants that close, we did see African Sacred Ibis, wart hogs, monkeys, go away birds, water buck, and others very close to our rooms.

Once we were out on the Reserve, there were beautiful scenes everywhere we turned. Views of hazy low clouds, rich red rocks, and almost barren scrubby landscapes in front of mountains in the distance kept changing.  As we headed out we first saw wildebeests and impalas. I loved it when a small herd of elephants crossed the road directly in front of us–a welcomed traffic jam! We saw two female lions near the water’s edge, but just far enough away that we couldn’t see them up close and personal. On the afternoon ride, we saw a male lion, but again even my telephoto lens didn’t quite capture his majesty. However, his roar could be clearly heard at a distance, and his presence was well established and respected. The zebras crossed the road in front of us at least twice. Amazing!

The list of animals sighted included: wildebeest, zebra, elephant wart hog, impala lions, hippos, rhinos, springbok, kudu, baboons, African Sacred Ibis, jackal, hartebeest, giraffes, guinea fowl, spotted eagle owl, go away bird, Egyptian goose, and rock rabbits.  We saw baby elephants and rhinos with their mamas.  While personally, I would have loved to see lions and tigers up close, I was thrilled with my slice of life in the South African bush. We ended the day in an enclosed area on the reserve with a roaring campfire and delicious food.  After dinner we ended the evening singing songs around the fire–just like my high school days on church youth group retreats.  The star-studded sky was glorious and bright and the Southern Cross was a reminder that we were, in fact, in the southern hemisphere. It was a very special day shared with a very special community of singers and friends.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Singing City Trip to South Africa – Pam’s Crèche

By Ken Schoenholz, choir member

Singing City Choir has just returned from a remarkable two-week tour of South Africa, complete with shared concerts with local church choirs, a big game safari, trips to important sites, such as Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum and Table Mountain, and shared experiences with a diverse extended choir group that had just the right chemistry.

Was there a highlight of the trip?  Yes, for me our visit to Pam’s Crèche, located in a poor Soweto “settlement,” made a lasting impression.  Why?  Let me give background.
We started our journey with a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.  To emphasize the meaning of apartheid, the entry tickets are labeled “black” or “white.” You are required to enter through the designated color gate.  This gives a small sense of what it was like to live under apartheid, particularly if you were black (80% of the population).  Everything was determined by your color—every aspect of your life. We entered and absorbed the multi-media presentation of the evolution of the apartheid regime, including some very powerful videos of its enforcement and atrocities.  I remember watching some of this at the time on US news, but the experience in the museum was much more moving and tangible.

The next day, Sunday, we visited Soweto, a large township that is the product of apartheid, where blacks were forcibly moved to separate them from the white population.  The black township still exists, and has an emerging middle-class, in part because policies that Nelson Mandela’s ANC party implemented after his election in 1994.  One such policy was to provide housing to all residents.  This is still in process, and there are still areas in the township called “settlements”, where the poorest residents live and which do not have plumbing or effective electricity. Though apartheid has been gone since 1994, it will clearly take a long time for real integration to become the norm for Soweto’s millions of black residents, and for the country as a whole. 

We had the good fortune to attend a service at the Holy Cross Anglican Church in Soweto and experience the power of music in the lives of the participants.  The church choir was sensational, led by an energetic choir leader, a short black female dynamo, who teamed with the church pastor to provide spiritual direction for the congregation.  Clearly religion plays a central and positive role for the neighborhood participants.  That afternoon we returned to the church for a joint concert with the church choir and another local ensemble.  The sharing and cultural exchange was fantastic.  Music created the important bridge for us, and I believe we all felt fortunate to participate.

And this takes me to our Monday, July 4, visit to Pam’s Crèche, in one of the poorest areas of Soweto.  We understood the roots of the community, its isolation and extreme hardships in relation to wealthier white communities.  And we understood from our choral exchange the ability of this community to find joy and spirituality, though it’s not clear whether any of the church congregation were residents of the “settlement” surrounding Pam’s Crèche.

So Monday, we walked past the Porta-Potties, corrugated homes and open fires that mark the “settlement” and arrived at the Crèche. Maggie Mdladla, the principal, met us. She took this position when Pam Mfaxa, the original director of the Crèche, died in 2014.  Maggie explained that the Crèche was originally founded in the early 90s by nuns to provide kids from the impoverished area an opportunity, and also to keep them from playing on the railroad tracks, where a number had been killed.  Today, the Crèche has around 140 students, aged 18 months to 6 years.

I had no idea what to expect, or why exactly we were visiting the Crèche given our packed schedule.  But what a profound eye-opener!  After the introduction, we entered the first classroom, composed of 4 and 5 year-olds.  There were about 40 children, dressed in very simple uniform vests with hats to keep them warm in the winter weather.  Each child beamed, and each had a most beautiful face.  The children recited poems and songs, and some used the dancing moves and rhythms that so define South African singing.  The teaching staff clearly provided love and care, and early education with a structured curriculum that begins and builds from their first classes.  To finish our visit to this classroom, selected 4 year olds recited to us their name and age, their school, their residence in Kliptown (the “settlement), and finished with a statement of what they wanted to be when they grow up.  We heard of lawyers, doctor, teachers...

The boys take a turn singing and dancing

Will they succeed and achieve their dreams?  Do they understand what those professions do and mean?  Who knows.  But the fact that this Crèche has instilled in them aspirations, as well as education and love as part of their foundation, and possibly they share these aspirations at home, is amazing.  How else can the dream of Nelson Mandela be achieved if the children are not given this opportunity to dream.  After the year 4/5 classroom, we visited the younger classrooms.  Each had a younger set of beautiful faces, with a structured curriculum presented by a competent teacher.  We also saw the kitchen and well-planned weekly menu, which provided balanced nutrition (as long as the money did not run out), and washrooms with plumbing.

We finished with by giving an outdoor mini-concert to a very appreciative audience of children and staff.  We then left to hit the road for the game reserve.  But, I don’t think anyone came away from the experience without a profound sense that this Crèche is providing something fundamental and special to these young people.  If this can be built on as they move to the next stage of their development in the “settlement”, they may achieve some of their goals.  And if not, at least they have tools to dream in an environment that otherwise seems hopeless.

It would be interesting to know how Crèche “graduates” have developed.  One could imagine a documentary sharing this gem (and possibly other similar facilities) with a much larger audience.

How lucky we were to have the experience.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Singing City in Johannesburg and Soweto

We arrived in Johannesburg on Friday, July 1, late in the afternoon, and went directly to our hotel on the city's outskirts. The flight was long and tiring but when we arrived at the hotel and found some singers and friends already there waiting for us, we felt revived and settled into a wonderful meal arranged for us by our guides Pieter and Juanita Myburgh. 

On Saturday morning we headed into the center of Johannesburg, South Africa's financial center, for a brief driving tour. The city had a feeling of desolation. People were out and about for weekend shopping - lots of street vendors and large white vans that act as the main mode of transportation for many - but we didn't exit the coach.  We later learned that quite a few South Africans work in Johannesburg Monday-Friday and fly home to towns along the Garden Route or elsewhere in South Africa on the weekends.

From the center of town, we made our way to the Apartheid Museum. We were immersed in the history of Apartheid and its aftermath, spending several hours making our way through the exhibits. Parallels between our own Civil Rights movement and the Apartheid era in South Africa were brought into focus. Interestingly, when Apartheid ended in 1994, the new government in South Africa brought about far more progressive laws regarding people's freedoms, some that we in the US are still struggling to implement. But while people in South Africa are free to live wherever they choose, they still tend to live along ethnic, racial and economic divisions. Housing shortages are a continuing problem, with new immigrants living along the edges of established communities in tin-roofed shanties. The differences are stark.

It takes at least two hours to make your way through the Apartheid Musuem and, even then, you are just scratching the surface. Apartheid began in 1948, the year that Singing City was founded. Our own beginnings are linked to similar struggles here at home and the Civil Rights movement.  

From there, we enjoyed an afternoon workshop with Mbuso Ndlovu, a Music Director and Choir Conductor, who worked with us on some of the South Africa repertoire we prepared back at home and also taught us something brand new. He marveled at our attempts to choreograph Dubula and did his best to help us move with a bit more grace and style. Here's hoping we can bring him to the US to spend more time with us!

Mbuso Ndlovu

We enjoyed dinner at Carnivore Restaurant, where grilled meats of every description are the focus. It reminded me of our first dinner in Brazil in 2009, a Chiascurria. The meal is served family style with servers bringing skewers of delectable meats one after the other, ranging from boerewors and lamb to ostrich, kudu and crocodile and, for the less adventurous, chicken and beef. Fully sated, we made our way back to the hotel for some rest before a 7 a.m. wake up call the next morning.

On Sunday, July 3, we started the day in Soweto at the Holy Cross Anglican Church where we participated in a church service. Soweto is the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa and was home to Nelson Mandela. Bishop Desmond Tutu's house is just one block away from where Mandela lived. We were welcomed with open arms. By the end of the service, all of us were singing (and dancing) together. Many of those in attendance for church services returned in the afternoon for our joint concert with their choir as well as Soweto Angelic Voices Choir. The church choir is in contention for first place in a local choral competition–very impressive (video below).  It is hard to put into words the sense of community and fellowship that we experienced. It was very moving, joyful, and transcendent. We were bathed in the sounds of their rich, full singing and also shared our voices with them.

At Singing City, we talk often about music's power to open minds and hearts. This experience was proof positive of that. Interestingly, an article by Alex Ross in the July 4 issue of The New Yorker, entitled "The Sound of Hate"  posits that if we agree that music has the power to "soothe the savage breast," we must also recognize that it can be used for darker purposes–inciting violence. Read it here.


We ended the day with dinner at Robby's Place, known as a local shabeen (technically, an "unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcoholic liquor and typically regarded as slightly disreputable"). This may once have been the case, but Robby's Place is a small local, family restaurant in Soweto that served up a delicious spread of comfort food, including Malva Pudding for dessert, a new favorite. Robby was there to greet us, dinner was ready, and we settled in to enjoy the food and each others' company after an exhausting and satisfying day.

 If you are in the neighborhood, it's highly recommended!