Today was our first day at Tembisa, and the experience was nothing short of amazing. I had heard about Tembisa before, of course. I had watched the videos and heard stories from the past groups, but bringing those stories and videos to life was surreal.
Immediately after we got off the bus, we heard a loud and cheerful, “Hello!” from a man who I very soon realized was our choir director, Thulani. I used to sing with the Cabrillo Youth Choir, and I have had almost 11+ years of music with various teachers, but I have never had a teacher with as much passion, skill, and spunk as Thulani. You could tell that he really loved his job with a burning passion from the energy that he brought to the whole day.
As Thulani greeted us, we could see standing behind him a group of kids, between the ages of 15-20. They stood in a line and embraced each and every one of us, instead of giving us the typical American handshake. As soon as they greeted us, all the nervousness that I was feeling about the day washed away and I was left feeling excited and readier than ever to sing.
We got in a large circle and started warming up, doing classic exercises such as rolling our necks and shaking out our feet. When Thulani told us to pretend that we were a piece of bubble gum being chewed, I knew that he was special, and that our time together was going to be fun.
We started out by showing them our first song, Asimbonanga. Although it wasn’t our best time singing it, I thought that we did OK. Then it was their turn to sing their version and I was absolutely blown off my feet. Their rendition of the song was beautiful and I had never heard such talented voices. Every single one of them held such a special gift of rhythm and song, and I had never heard more beautiful harmonies.
The whole day went on in that routine, us singing and them one-upping us with their versions. When we were able to sing together, some of the most beautiful music that I have ever heard was produced. They taught us 3 new songs, and we will be performing them in front of an audience on Wednesday.
There was a moment when all 34 of us were gathered in a garage, packed with two cars and a piano. Since the space was quite small, the sound reverberated well, and we made our voices sound as one. In that moment of harmony, any differences between us were washed away, and we were united. I can’t wait for our next two days at Tembisa.
Walking into Tembisa today, I was flooded with connections. Right as we stepped off the bus, the performer and choir director Thulani greeted us openly and joyfully. All my nervousness that had been building up as we anticipated this day, washed away as I recognized a familiar face in the crowd of kids. Her name is Ze and my older sister, Aimee, who went to South Africa with Mount Madonna School 2 years ago, had told me about her. Aimee told me all about how sweet Ze was and that I should find her and say hello. When I walked into Tembisa, it occurred to me that Aimee must have told Ze about me too because she immediately ran up to me and hugged me saying, “You’re Haley! Aimee’s sister!” Then two other girls came up to me, asking if I had come there before because I looked familiar. I explained to them that no, I had not come there before, however my sister Aimee and I have very similar faces. This exchange not only made me feel close to my sister for the first time in nine days, since I left for South Africa, it also gave me a close feeling of connection with Ze and the other girls.
Throughout the day, I met many more amazing and talented kids. I was impressed with how welcoming they were. These surface connections were deepened when everyone started singing. The kids from Tembisa were overflowing with talent and they seemed excited to share it with us. Thulani, the choir director, also had many incredible talents, including singing, directing, and even writing his own songs.
The songs that my classmates and I had been preparing for a few months were completely overturned, in a good way. Our teacher Ward had been telling us for weeks that once we came to Tembisa, our songs would reach a new level, and he was right. Singing these songs in a completely new way, in a room full of new faces, felt thrilling. Looking around the room, you could see the passionate talent in each kid. They were very understanding and helped us learn the correct pronunciation of the lyrics. They also taught us the new way to sing each song. They also taught us three brand new songs, which we all learned quickly, thanks to Thulani’s skills. Learning these new songs, and new versions of old songs, is what solidified and deepened our connections with these kids.
The talent and power that came out of the mouths of the Tembisa choir, as they sang, was empowering for my classmates and me. Once my classmates and I sang the songs with them, the harmony our voices created together created a complete connection between each one of us. This connection is something that I hope I do not lose touch of, as I continue my journey.
Music is the language of connection. We took our first trip to Tembisa this afternoon and I could not have been more blown away by the music.
We got off our bus and were immediately swarmed by the kids coming to give us hugs, while asking our names and wanting to get to know us. After some brief introductions, we moved into a room that was eerily like the assembly room at Mount Madonna School. We were led by their choir director, Thulani, in a brief warm up and then got right into presenting our songs.
After we presented our songs, Thulani told us that we would be doing a performance on Wednesday as part of a celebration that is going on this week at Tembisa. In this performance, we will perform songs that we prepared and some of the songs that his kids had prepared. He went on to tell us that there was a story behind the songs we will be singing.
Once his kids started there was no stopping them. They began singing and one by one the Mount Madonna kids began to pick up on how the songs went, and joined in. It was a beautiful experience, simply joining in with whatever the kids were singing, and being welcomed, even taught by them. As we went through the layout of the show, Thulani would pop between different groups and work with them on their part, ensuring that everyone was understanding and learning their parts.
Thulani’s acceptance, along with the generosity from all the kids there, felt beautiful. Being able to join our voices and songs with theirs, to create even more fabulous music, was fun to be a part of. I look forward to being able to work with them in the coming days to create something that combines our two different cultures. A performance that brings us all together through singing one language; the language of love and connection.
The month of June is Youth Month in South Africa. June 16th is a national holiday, commemorating the student uprising in Soweto in 1976. Many students died protesting apartheid education.