The Mzansi Youth Choir Celebrated Africa month with Vusi Mahlasela creating an inspiring moment in time
July 8, 2019
I had the privilege of talking James Bassingthwaighte, musical director of the Mzansi Youth Choir. Having come from a music background with an appreciation for all forms of music, talking to him was an inspiration.
The Mzansi Youth Choir was established in July 2003 with the aim of affording talented, underprivileged teenagers and young adults (14-24 years) the opportunity to proficiently perform locally and abroad. Their vision is also to package, re-package and create new African Music. The choir consists of 60 choristers from Soweto and other areas in and around Johannesburg. The choir recently celebrated 15 years and are proud to have over 645 children pass through their hands. Many have gone onto be professionals in their own right.
They were approached by Rand Merchant Bank, who is already a firm supporter of the choir in many ways, with an idea to create a campaign for Africa month. “We didn’t want to create a campaign in the traditional sense, but rather a moment in time where everyone can come together to appreciate and celebrate Africa” said Bassingthwaighte.
Choosing the right song to create this fantastic moment in time was a challenge in itself as there are so many great, iconic songs from amazing artists. Bassingthwaighte explained that there were many songs and artists they had discussed, however they chose “Say Africa” and Vusi Mahlasela because they fitted with the atmosphere and message they wanted to achieve. “Say Africa inspires people to really believe that together we can overcome so many of the challenges that we as a continent have faced or are facing,” said Bassingthwaighte. They chose Vusi as he also represents the struggles to freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation the country has faced and overcome.
The most memorable moment of creating the video, explained Bassingthwaighte, was presenting it to Vusi. Obviously Vusi having a tight schedule made it all the more important that they presented something he liked and wanted to be a part of relatively quickly. Bassingthwaighte stated that “seeing the look on Vusi’s face when we presented him the idea was a priceless and rewarding moment”. This video is colourful, vibrant and inspirational. The choir also gave the song its own twist by incorporating different African languages such as Swahili and Venda, making it that much more mesmerizing to watch.
James Bassingthwaighte has only been with the Choir for 18 months. Having worked in different areas in the industry, Bassingthwaighte explained the shift to the choir as an amazing experience. “Working with the choir gave me a new appreciation for music. Being a musician you can sometimes lose touch of the music and how important it can actually be.” Working with the choir and more underprivileged individuals, he was reminded about how much music can touch a person and can help them through certain challenges in their lives. Music helps create a moment where for a few minutes, you are able to forget about everything going on around you.
When watching a choir, most people don’t actually take into account how much time and hard work goes into the entire performance. When it comes to being part of a choir and rehearsals, generally the choristers would all meet at the rehearsal spot, for example at a school, church or hall. However, in this case, Bassingthwaighte explained the struggles the Mzansi Choir faces when organising rehearsals, considering how many people are involved. “We provide transport and a meal per rehearsal for the choristers to ensure they are able to be at each rehearsal and have enough strength for the rehearsals and shows ahead”. The choir has rehearsals 3 times a week, each day focusing on a different area (vocal, performance and theory).
Looking at the future of the choir, it is very clear that great opportunities lie ahead. They have already performed with many great people, including Beyoncé and Micasa, and are all very passionate about their mission of bringing Africans together and dealing with the daily struggles and hardships that the youth in Soweto and Africa go through.
The highlight of my conversation though, has to be when Bassingthwaighte explained their own style that they have developed – the Isicatha-Clap which is a fusion of Isicathamiya (Zulu style “tiptoe”) and the Clap-and-Tap (Sotho choral gospel style). It is fascinating, powerful and definitely something to go check out!
Written by Catherine Goldstein for Luxuria Lifestyle South Africa