Old Mutual National Choir Festival – a musical evolution
11 December 2015
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual App, which is available here.
Brad Brown: This is Old Mutual Live and joining me is a man who is synonymous with choral music in South Africa, Bonisile Gcisa, welcome onto the podcast, thank you so much for joining us today. You’re a choralist, you love music, you said to me before we started recording, you were almost a musician before you were conceived, it’s just always been a part of you, welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Bonisile Gcisa: Thank you very much.
BB: Let’s go back, before we talk about the Old Mutual National Choir Festival and your involvement in some of the other areas that you work in, where did your love for music come from? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Musical before I was even conceived
BG: I grew up in a very musical environment. I have a musical family, my parents were conductors at their schools, my uncles were conductors. We sang in school choirs, we sang in church choirs and I ended up at high school, conducting a high school choir and a church choir. So my career started, effectively, my music career started effectively from high school and that’s how it happened.
BB: And the rest, as they say, is all history. You’ve done so many great things, let’s talk about the Old Mutual National Choir Festival, the NCF, your involvement here. You’re not one of the youngsters coming in, you’ve been around this competition for many years, you’ve seen it evolve and grow into what it is today.
BG: In the past I’ve participated with my church choir in the Old Mutual competitions. I’ve participated and lots of experience. I’ve supported the programme throughout and like I said, the programme is development; it’s fruitful, it’s educational. Any other programme will have its glitches, but this programme has been there for years and it has added value to people’s lives and it still does.
BB: Talk to me about the music side of things. Obviously we’re talking about the choirs and the wonderful performances, but the music and the way that’s evolved over the years, there’s essentially two aspects to it and you’ve been instrumental in merging the two, tell us a little bit about that.
How the competition has evolved musically
BG: Old Mutual has been, for black choirs, black African choirs and like in South Africa we have two systems in music, which is tonic sol-fa and staff notation and mostly tonic sol-fa has been used. But with developments and changes, I think staff notation has been more wasted.
Now it has been a challenge that people could not communicate because others are from tonic sol-fa background and staff notation background and that’s what made me and encouraged me to write a book bridging the bridges from between the African culture and the Western culture in the sense.
That the mental theory book, in making people who were not, who could not have the opportunity of reading music and studying music, to be able to access staff notation and understand this international knowledge called staff notation.
Yes, tonic sol-fa has been good, it has been good all the years, but things have changed, there’s lots of improvement, lots of progress. People need to have that economic, artistic, economic, social liberation by understanding the other system, which is international.
BB: It’s interesting because there’s a flipside to that coin too, it also gives that African music the opportunity to go onto a global scale?
Helping make African music globally accessible
BG: Exactly, that is why I took it upon my shoulders to start a programme of documenting African music, music that has been verbally transmitted and make it accessible, accessible to the global audience. But in all my books, I use the two systems so that people that have never had the chance of being given the formal music tuition; should be able to say, okay, this is tonic sol-fa, this is staff notation, this is how one can learn. It’s an educational journey, that is why I used the two systems in my book.
BB: That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about the choir that you’re going to be leading in this year’s competition, tell us a little bit about that choir, the choir that you’re involved with at the moment.
BG: The choirs that I’m involved with at the moment, it’s our provincial choirs that I support. The Bel Canto and the CUT choir, but I support all choirs, obviously I have to be natural, obviously my investment has to be with our choirs. I support them, I give advice where I can.
BB: And let’s talk about, you were talking about taking African music internationally, how would you rate South African choirs on an international scale from a talent and technical perspective?
Technically South African choirs are very good
BG: From the technical point of view, South African choirs have improved, but you can still lift up our songs and do better. There’s been a lot of new development because if you look back, all these records, we come from the acoustic and the western background.
Everything from the acoustic it’s spontaneous, but based on all involvement, workshops, music clinics, these group prescriptions, challenging prescriptions, challenging repertoires that people have started to experience; has helped and still it’s helping our black choirs, or our South African choirs to be on a better level.
BB: I’m glad you brought up the prescription particularly for this year because I’ve spoken to pretty much all the conductors and that’s a question I’ve been asking them, is how have they found the prescription this year. Every single one of them has said to me it’s been very challenging. But they’re not complaining about it, they love it because it’s pushing them out of their comfort zone and forcing them to get better.
The prescribed music was to challenge our choirs
BG: That’s the intention, which is good. It has to, the prescription, in my opinion and I’m highly opinionated, to say the prescription has to, it says to a person, I must cultivate that self-driven responsibility of learning and making myself a better leader.
Making sure it’s not about myself only, but it’s about everybody that is involved in the programme. Even an ordinary chorister should be able to learn something theoretically from the prescription and from their involvement.
BB: And that’s the only way you get better, by pushing the boundaries of what you think is possible.
BG: It’s very true.
BB: How does a competition like the NCF get better every single year? Because every year, it doesn’t go backwards, every year the bar just gets raised. From an organisation perspective, is it difficult to keep pushing that bar?
BG: You see, there’s lots of pressure because people love choral music, ordinary people love choral music and they die for choral music, myself included. That will always make the organisation to be on their toes all the time because there are lots of critics, lots of criticism.
Others will just criticise without any understanding, without any background, they just make noise. But you also receive mature academic, you know, criticism and advice. When you bring all those factors together, it’s good that people be vocal so that people who are in the organisation, from the organising point of view, can hear these views and can prepare themselves.
Fortunately, in my opinion, there is that room of people from the organisation point of view, from management point of view, that they are involved with this audience. So hence I say, it’s good, it gives and it cultivates a healthy atmosphere throughout, between management and the audience.
BB: Bonisile, from an organisation point of view, things are improving. Looking at the class of 2015, all the choirs that are performing this year, would you say this is the best year yet, by what you’ve seen so far?
2015 will definitely be technically good
BG: It’s quite a tricky question to answer, but technically it’s good. The only challenge and the only bedevilling thought would always be on the large section, that if maybe they could continue keeping the same level throughout, so that they don’t change partners.
Because the league issue, it’s a bit confusing and had I attended all regional eliminations, maybe I would be on the other page, but that’s my intention in 2016. To attend all regional eliminations and see how they do because I’m also an adjudicator and you need to learn from other people.
For the sake of continuity, it would be good to do the league, but maybe add two other, extra two choirs so that every province, it’s represented. Maybe make twelve choirs, maybe we’ll make twelve choirs, have fourteen choirs, fifteen choirs in the large section. Just for the sake of all provinces being involved and not discouraging other provinces and maybe sponsors from those particular provinces.
BB: It sounds like there’s a plan in the making here. We will watch this space and see if that does come about. Bonisile, thank you so much for your time today, much appreciated and we look forward to catching up again at the finals on that weekend.
BG: For sure.
BB: Get your opinion then of the performances.
BG: For sure, I’m looking forward to the finals.