Finding a Voice (and Bodies) for an Untold South African Story

LONDON — In the summer of 1891, a group of singers from the Cape in South Africa embarked on an unlikely enterprise. Calling themselves the African Choir, they sailed to England to earn money to build a school for their community. On a two-year tour, they performed traditional African songs, Christian hymns and English ballads, drawing large crowds — and an invitation to sing for Queen Victoria at her residence on the Isle of Wight. They even did a stint in North America.

But by the time they returned to South Africa in 1893, they had been worn down by rapacious tour managers, discrimination and internal dissent. Then they were forgotten for over a century.

In “Broken Chord,” which opens at Sadler’s Wells here on Friday, the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and the composer Thuthuka Sibisi evoke the physical and spiritual journey of the choir as its members confront the realities of colonial expectations, racism and colliding cultures.

Maqoma, who says that “Broken Chord” will mark his retirement from performing, is the central dancer and conduit for the tale. Four singer-dancers (Tshegofatso Khunwane, Lubabalo Velebhayi, Xolisile Bongwana and Zandile Hlatshwayo) represent the choristers, supplemented by a local choir, engaged wherever the show is staged. At Sadler’s Wells, it will be the Echo Vocal Ensemble.

“Thuthuka has written it so cleverly,” Sarah Latto, Echo’s conductor, said in a telephone conversation between rehearsals. “There are African-inspired harmonies and existing folk songs, but there is also classical Western music, with references to Handel, to Purcell’s Dido’s lament, that come in and then disintegrate.

“To me,” she added, “it evokes the West versus ‘the other,’ and the idea that this group are performing white Western culture. These are issues that are still relevant.”

One sequence uses the choir members’ personal recollections to demonstrate some of the racist attitudes and stereotypes that they encountered. “It’s uncomfortable to perform, but important,” Latto said.

Over a recent video call from Ottawa, where “Broken Chord” was being performed — plans are afoot for a further North American tour later this year — Sibisi, animated and voluble (“I always talk too much”) and Maqoma, quieter, reflective, discussed how they had worked together, the importance of untold stories and why it was important not to categorize the show. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Maqoma.Credit…Moeletsi Mabe
Thuthuka Sibisi.Credit…Moeletsi Mabe

How did you discover the existence of the African Choir, and when did you decide to collaborate on a piece about it?

Thuthuka Sibisi The start was really a 2014 exhibition created by Renée Mussai, a curator at the Autograph Collection in London, who found gelatin prints of the choir members in the Hulton Archive. When the show was coming to South Africa, I was contacted, with Philip Miller, another South African composer, about creating a sound score. We had to think about how to reimagine that part of history that had been left untold, to find a voice for it.

Gregory Maqoma I only discovered the African Choir when the exhibition came to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in 2018. It was by chance, because I was completing a documentary and wanted to film there. When I came into the room with the portraits and the music, I had to go to the center of the room and dance.

I felt the images around the room were looking at me, that I was a carrier of this untold, unseen history. And I thought about how people had looked at them at the time. The questions I had been struggling with, around the Black body, around the gaze, were immediately connected to these photographs. I went to Thuthuka to say I wanted to work on this.

Thuthuka, what was your reaction?

Sibisi Have you seen this man move? It was an immediate yes! In Greg’s work, no gesture is without meaning, so it made complete sense to me to work together.

Maqoma We talked a lot about how to tell the story without making it into a history lecture. We thought about them traveling from South Africa in a boat, arriving into different weather, different smells and sounds, wearing Victorian clothes or being expected to dress as “African.” Then I had to work out how all of those elements translated into gesture, and Thuthuka had to work out how to translate it into song.

Sibisi But we also wanted to move away from just telling the choir’s story. Here was a Black ensemble traveling to the north, and there were ideas about what they should be and how they didn’t fit. The idea that you have to meet certain criteria to gain entrance to Europe hasn’t disappeared. You start to see how history repeats itself.

But it’s not a polemic about Black struggle. There is something about coming together in the theater as a communal space: We are saying this is what we know to have happened and you can participate in the remaking of it.

Did you structure and create the piece together?

Sibisi I would like to think there was a symbiotic dance between me and Greg. So many questions come up and you follow the flow, so the music moved away quite dramatically from the portrait exhibition score. There were many moments when Greg would say, “I’m hearing this, what do you hear?” The processes and tools of composing and choreographing are not dissimilar.

We gave ourselves parameters: 60 minutes, one dancer, four musicians, a chorus. But then, what if the quartet also dances? What if we had a choir? What if the choir came from different cities?

Maqoma It was clear to me that I would be the lone dancer. I wanted something to mark my retirement from performing. I improvise a lot, so did a lot of that, then we made choices much later. A lot of what I do onstage is still improvisation, but with clear anchors and parameters. I very much feel I am part of the quartet of musician-movers around me. They are like extra limbs in the space.

Sibisi For the exhibition, Philip and I worked with 15 singers in Cape Town. Because of the great oral tradition in South Africa, there was a real musical passing of the baton; you would have people saying, “No, my grandmother sings this a different way.” A lot of that fed into the composition, trying to make individual voices emerge from the group. In 1891, the choir was a kind of object symbolizing a British view of Africa: dark and impenetrable rather than individual, capable human beings.

When you watch the piece, you realize that Greg embodies many of these identities. He is the leader, a young boy, a character leading them in the Lord’s Prayer, another wanting to go home. He is the container of those conversations; he is constantly toiling to place himself somewhere. The chorus has a formalized, strict score and the alive-ness of Greg’s improv is set against that. By the end, the structure, the empire is starting to fall apart; the center won’t hold. These are formal tools we used to make these ideas more apparent.

The work doesn’t fall into a specific category. Was that intentional?

Maqoma I always felt it shouldn’t be categorized as dance, opera, theater, whatever — and that freedom allowed us not to follow rules, to create a space where we could fail and allow the work to grow. As a dancer, I’m used to responding to music, but here it was also to the text, the incense, the choir, even the suitcases that become percussive instruments.

Sibisi In African performance, the naming of things isn’t didactical, and you could say that by trying to do so you play into Western hierarchies of high art and low art. The goal is centralizing an Afrocentric perspective, removing ourselves from the naming that exists in the West. Or perhaps, as the author NoViolet Bulawayo writes, we need new names.

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