Menzi Gule – from singer to conductor
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now and we are just a couple of weeks away from the Grand Finale of the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, tickets are on sale, by the way, you can get through Computicket, it’s all taking place in Mangaung and we’re joined now by one of the conductors who will be performing at the Grand Finale, from Swaziland. It’s Menzi Gule, Menzi, welcome onto Old Mutual Live, thanks for joining us.
Menzi Gule: Thank you very much.
BB: Menzi, before we get onto your choir, I want to find out a little bit more about you and share your journey to choral music with our listeners, where did your love for choral music develop?
Singing always a part of my life
MG: Early in high school in fact, when I got into high school I got into the choir and that’s where things started happening, it inspired my love for choral music there and then.
BB: Menzi, did you grow up in a music family? Was music a part of your life?
MG: Big time, even from church, Sunday school, church choir, always been there singing. When I got into high school I just knew that I wanted to sing and I got into the choir –
BB: And the rest is history as they say. Tell me a little bit about your choir.
MG: Mbabane Methodist Church Choir, the name says it’s a church choir, formed in 1972. Over the decades it’s evolved to a very big choir and it’s not only just the church members that sing, it’s the community. Some of them reside in South Africa, it’s a very big choir, now, about a 100 voice choir, full-time members, about 100 now.
BB: What does it mean to you and the choir to perform in a competition like the NCF?
MG: Well, a competition always grows a choir, it’s one way that we actually grow. If you compete in such big competitions, the choir grows. It grows in terms of voices, in terms of technical abilities and in every way. The music that’s prescribed here challenges the choir and it lets it grow.
Transition from signing to conducting
BB: As far as conducting goes, how did you get involved in conducting? It’s one thing singing in a choir, but not everyone can do what you do.
MG: Ja, I’ve been singing for a very long time, almost about 18 years now, involved in choral music. I’ve always taken that sort of a back seat, but I’ve always been involved in the technical decisions that the choir makes.
So early this year, I took up the position to be the conductor of the choir, otherwise, all my life, been singing tenor, assisting the choir technically, then this year I took the responsibility. The choir approached me and said it’s about time you take the responsibility.
BB: How are you enjoying that added responsibility now?
MG: The nice thing is when you see whatever you’ve been teaching, whatever you’ve been training the choir, when you’re on stage and performing and you’re like wow, this is the result, it’s so fulfilling when you see that happening. Because choirs like ours, it’s like you take raw talent, and you’ve got to convert that into great singers and then when you see that on stage happening, you’re proud, it’s a proud moment.
BB: It’s like polishing a gemstone, finding a rough little diamond and on the stage in Mangaung we’re going to see those diamonds shine.
MG: And same applies to my journey. I’ve been moulded by other great conductors, we work a lot with Sidwell Mhlongo from Gauteng Choristers, we’ve worked a lot with Vusi Khanyile from SA Singers, has been to the choir as well.
These are people that have shaped and moulded our thinking, our path as a choir, myself as a conductor now. I just had to wait for the right time and the one time I conducted the choir, at the competition. We won the competition, position one, at the elimination and we continue to grow, we continue to grow.
BB: Menzi, that’s one thing I’ve picked up about this competition. Yes, it’s a competition, everyone is competing against each other, but there’s a camaraderie between the conductors and a willingness to not just learn from, but to give information. Someone like you who is fairly new as a conductor, you’ve been around choral music for a while, the guys who have been around for a lot longer, seem to –
Great relationship between conductors
MG: To be assisting, yes, of course they’re assisting quite a lot. That animosity, it’s not there, it’s not there. We share information, you consult when you have a problem and they always travel to Swaziland, to see the choir and see it grow.
BB: That’s amazing. The choir has been around for a long time, since the early 70’s –
MG: A very long time.
BB: This competition has been around for a long time as well. What does it mean to you to be able to perform on this final stage in Mangaung as Menzi, but also as a choir? It’s a great platform.
MG: We are looking for a very good performance. It’s a great platform, it’s where people actually get to notice what you do, get to appreciate what you do. At the end of the day I always tell the choir, let’s enjoy ourselves, let’s have fun at the end of the day. We are looking forward to a great performance, we are looking forward to a great performance. It’s taking shape.
BB: There’s always a lot of banter around the draw and the order of performance, are you happy with what you’ve been drawn?
MG: On Saturday, on the western category, we are positioned number two on stage, I was hoping for somewhere in the middle, but you can’t change the draw, you’ve got to psyche into it and tell yourself, it’s the right position for you and make it count. It doesn’t matter whether you’re number ten or number one on stage, you just have to give a good performance.
BB: You’ve got to do your best.
MG: You’ve got to do your best, ja.
BB: What are you hoping to achieve in these finals?
Going all out at the finals
MG: We all go to a competition hoping to win. I hope to win. I wish for my choir to win the competition, that’s an honest truth. But that’s not what we push forward, you just push forward, the idea of a good performance. Something that is fulfilling to us and we feel like, yes, we did justice to the music and then, if the result is good, it’s good.
BB: I love that attitude, it’s a case of, you come with as best as you can perform and if you put in the best performance you can put in, if that’s good enough to win on the day, if there’s a choir that’s better, so be it, I love that. Tell me about some of the challenges that you’ve had to face to get to where you are in this competition.
MG: There’s a lot of challenges, but mostly financially, like I was saying earlier on, the choir has now reached about 100 voices and to manage that is not easy. It needs strong finances. Also the coaching that you need to get from South Africa, Sidwell coming to Swaziland, it really needs of money.
Also the music that has been prescribed, the music, it’s opera, it’s big opera, grand opera. It requires special voices that you must also get for you to be able to carry through that music. The music is very challenging and for growing choirs, for smaller choirs that are still developing, that’s a challenge, to get them to understand the music, to learn the music, to get them to perform. You still need to find professional soloists to assist with the performance.
BB: How excited are the members of your choir to come to these finals?
MG: Very much excited, they are very much excited. You can see the spirit at the rehearsals already, there’s no more problems of absenteeism or what, everybody is just looking forward to the dream. Then you still have to trim the numbers down, because you’re only looking for 60 voices on stage, or 70 at most on the Western piece. So everybody wants to show up on stage, but it’s not possible. So they are competing also for spaces on stage and it’s very exciting, the atmosphere at rehearsal is very interesting.
BB: How difficult is that, to make the decision about who comes and who stays?
MG: Ja, right now, number one, we’ve been trying to monitor attendance, you have to know what’s happening. You can have a good voice, but if you’re not at rehearsal, then you’re going to have a problem. If everybody is good, everybody is there, you’ve got to audition, this thing, one by one and select.
BB: It’s not easy.
MG: It’s not easy, you can’t choose somebody because they are a friend or they are closer to you. They’ve got to know about what they are doing because at the end of the day, as a conductor, focus is going to be on me and I don’t want to go on stage looking like I’m lost. I need to have trust in the chorus that I’ve selected, they need to have trust in me so that we can give a good performance.
BB: Menzi, we’re looking forward to seeing you perform live in Mangaung at those finals. Best of luck for the final run in, safe travels back to Swaziland and safe travels for the whole choir when they do come.
MG: Thank you very much, thanks for having me.