Notes from the African Chorus

St. Olaf has hundreds of organizations on campus, including many that celebrate a variety of cultures. Alex Hemmer ’18 shares her experience in Karibu Association, a club that focuses on the cultures of Africa. In her blog post, the students are planning Africa Night, a yearly event that highlights the diversity of dance, music, theater and more from across the African continent. Check out all our student organizations here!

“This year, we would really like to see some singing, which is something we didn’t have in last year’s show,” said Olivier, then a sophomore student from the republic of Congo, and the co-chair of St. Olaf’s Karibu Association. As a first year student in my first month at St. Olaf, I was quite nervous about pitching ideas for the upcoming Africa Night. I was even shyer in brainstorming performance ideas because I am not from an African country. But before I can continue with this story, allow me to first give you a brief background:

I am an international student from Singapore, and I completed high school at the United World College (UWC), a 2-year international boarding school with 15 campuses around the world. Very simply put, UWC is dedicated to uniting students from different nations for peace & sustainability. I was blessed to live with schoolmates from over 80 countries in the gorgeous southwestern state of New Mexico – UWC USA – who exposed me to a variety of intercultural experiences. At UWC, I was passionately involved with the school’s African Chorus, a student-led choir that performed (mostly) Southern African gospel songs, often incorporating dance moves from the region. It was especially great because you didn’t have to be African to participate; we had Norwegians, Chinese, Haitians – almost any nationals you could think of! I had a lot of fun with the African Chorus, and the thought of having to leave it behind was really sad. But why move on from something you love when you can continue, right? It is possible to start clubs or activities at St. Olaf College, and as a first year student, I was excited to continue learning more about African cultures by participating in student organizations.

Honestly though, such ideas were more easily said than done. For starters, St. Olaf is known for its nationally prestigious choirs led by highly professional instructors. Additionally, I’m a first year Singaporean student with Southern African interests in a school founded on Norwegian culture. The idea seemed more like a dream than a goal at first, but it wasn’t scary enough to be put down. As a result, I determinedly joined Karibu in the beginning of freshman year, out of both my interest in African cultures and my hope to get one step closer to developing this chorus idea.

Later, when Fred Eduam, my Ghanaian classmate at UWC and now at St. Olaf, told me he wanted to introduce the concept of African Chorus to our new peers, I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. I knew then that I wasn’t alone – not to mention that he is one of the most musically gifted people I know. Together, we pitched the idea to our Karibu leaders, who upon watching some of our performance videos from UWC, allowed us to lead the Karibu community in song & dance.

Our ideas were finally approved, but we still needed one more person. It goes without saying that we needed someone good at vocal instructions with a sense of rhythm. But we were also looking for someone from Southern Africa who would be most familiar with the region’s music and cultures. This person turned out to be Themba Jonga, another classmate of mine from Swaziland, a UWC graduate from the Swazi campus. Much to our benefit, he also had a rich choral and general musical background. After presenting the entire idea to Themba, he excitedly agreed to co-lead what was soon to develop into a successful African Chorus!

The African Chorus performing at International Night
The African Chorus performing at International Night

There were several times that I questioned my leadership and whether or not the dream was successfully falling into place. Themba, Fred, and I had to understand what teaching style would best suit our peers of diverse musical backgrounds. Some students understood choir structures, while others had never publicly sung before. It was a learning process, but it helped us develop as student leaders and choral teachers, even though none of us were music majors. We also had to make sure that we accurately taught the song lyrics and thoughtfully represented Southern African culture. Both Themba and Pumla Maswanganyi ’16 from South Africa were tremendously helpful as we learned pronunciations. Through practicing lyrics that were typically in SeSotho, isiXhosa and isiZulu, we exposed the chorus to Southern African clicks, which are quite hard for those not experienced.

All in all, African Chorus rehearsals turned out to be a wonderful exposure to Southern Africa, considering that they were typically one-hour sessions in a meeting room in Northfield, MN. After the many hours we spent together, I am glad to say that we successfully performed Hlohonolofatsa at Africa Night 2014, enough for us to be trusted with two more performances after that. Themba, Fred, and I led the chorus one more time for the annual school-wide event, International Night, and even got to perform at Macalester College’s African culture show in Spring 2015. Though we are a young chorus, all three of us agree that we have come a very long way in such a short time, and we are looking forward to further developing it with the next few opportunities that come our way. We are excited to continue the dream of having a student-led choir that also serves as a musical opportunity for those not seeking to academically pursue music, while also spreading one aspect of African cultures.

Check out our final practice below!

So thank you Themba, thank you Fred, and thank you to every single person who has been a part of the chorus so far. The development of African Chorus would not have been possible without any of these people. I look forward to making more memories!

Want to see more performances that celebrate cultures worldwide? Watch the entire performance of International Night 2015 here!