Thami Zhungi – SA choral music is a world leader
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. It’s time to chat National Choir Festival, it’s brought to you by Old Mutual and we’re joined by one of the adjudicators for this year’s competition, Thami Zhungi, welcome onto the podcast, thanks for agreeing to chat to us today.
Thami Zhungi: My pleasure.
BB: Thami, just a quick one, how long have you been involved with the Old Mutual National Choir Festival as an adjudicator?
TZ: I started in 2009 actually, so 2009 and up until now and I’ve done almost all the years.
BB: That’s fantastic Thami, so you’ve been around with the National Choir Festival for a while now. Where did your love for choral music originate from, where did it stem from?
My journey into becoming a festival judge
TZ: It started in school, in KZN I went to a High School in Umlazi and it was a very good school in choral music. I joined the choir and my love for choral singing developed there and then I went to study at the University of Durban, but I couldn’t finish there because I got a scholarship to go study overseas.
I went to Bloomington, Indiana, I spent two years there and then I went to the Julia School in New York where I spent about six years and I started to freelance. I got back in the country around 2004, I was hired at Tshwane University of Technology, the opera and choral music section. I’ve been there since.
BB: Fantastic, Thami, it’s just amazing to hear everybody’s journey and how they got into it. How did you end up becoming an adjudicator for the Old Mutual National Choir Festival?
TZ: Well, firstly I was invited to adjudicate a school’s in 2004 and because of the career of singing, people can actually see your capabilities, what you can do in assessing performances. I never sent any application, but I just got a call inviting me to be a part of the adjudicating panel at NCF. I’m not sure how they do things, but I just got an invitation to join the team.
BB: Thami, from the time you spent overseas, from when you were in South Africa and then you went over to complete your studies and you spent many years abroad, how’s the choral music scene improved in SA over that time?
It’s often when you’re involved in an industry and you’re here on the ground all the time, it’s difficult to see how it’s improving or how it’s not improving, but when you remove yourself from that environment for a while and you come back, there’s often major changes. What were some of the big changes that you saw when you returned in 2004?
Seen a great growth of choral music over the years
TZ: It’s amazing because when I left, I think most of the time the competitions were accompanied by piano and even then there were very few pianists of colour. But by the time I got back, I mean the western prescriptions accompanied by full orchestras now and those orchestras are conducted by our conductors, so conductors who prepare the choirs and they end up actually in the finals conducting the orchestra and choir.
I think that’s a huge development. Also the music, that has been prescribed, the last 10 years or so, has actually forced the standard of choral singing to go at a very higher level, so definitely a big change in the last 10 years or so.
BB: Thami, as far as the level of choral music here in South Africa compared to the global scene, you’ve obviously been exposed to it on various levels, where would you say SA is on a global scale? Do we compare internationally, are we way better or do we have work to do?
TZ: It will sound like it’s a self-service, but nothing comes to what we are able to produce in this country. I spent 10 years in America and I’ve sung with so many different companies that do a lot of choral festivals. We are on top of all of that because even in Finland where they have a very good choral programme, they do not come close in terms of the voices we are able to produce in this part of the world.
So, I can mostly say, we are actually ahead. Where we need to improve is actually the academic side of choral and singing in general so that we can write more articles to talk about what we do and so forth.
BB: I love that, I think that’s fantastic and it just says a lot for what’s happening. It’s not just in certain areas in South Africa, Thami, I’m sure you’d agree with me, we’ve got incredible talent spread across the country. All the major centres, a lot of the rural towns and villages, wherever you go, you can find unbelievably talented people.
South Africa has an abundance of widespread musical talent
TZ: Exactly. You can go to any township right now and you will find most of the people who are able to actually sing and listen well, in other words they have a very good ear to carry a tune or hear the melody. So we are very fortunate in that way and when you look even in rural places, there is a lot of interest in choral music because it started in school and then it’s becoming a very good culture.
BB: Thami, do you think we’re naturally born with that in us as South Africans or is that something that’s taught at a very early age, growing up in musical households and musical families?
TZ: We are born with talents, but the re-shaping of those talents needs attention. Although the churches have played a very important role in this country when it comes to singing, you also have a lot of formal churches where they will get from the classical hymns, so to speak and then the interest is generated.
But I’m coming from an African kind of church, but we still sing a lot. Everything we do in this country is about singing, it’s a singing country. If you compare it to countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where the singing is not that much, but they do a lot of drumming because of their natural vegetation, and in SA the thing that we have is the voice.
BB: I think that’s fantastic. Thami, what I’m going to do if it’s okay with you. I’m going to end our chat on this one right now, but I’m going to get you on in just a couple of weeks’ time to chat a little bit about the adjudication process and some of the talent you’ve seen throughout this year’s National Choir Festival and thank you for your time, much appreciated and we look forward to catching up again next time on Old Mutual Live.