In this era of Amapiano and Afro-pop, few people outside of dedicated fans pay attention to the other genres of music coming out of South Africa. It could even be argued that not everyone will embrace and enjoy all genres, but who says you can’t try? There are several types of music in South Africa, including “mbaqanga,” choral music, “isicathamiya”, “marabi,” classical music, among others. The country has 11 different languages, and each traditional culture has its own genre.
Choral music is one of those amazing genres that inspires a fair share of mainstream songs but very few people associate or even recognize that. This form of music combines Western music techniques with African tradition, exhibiting both social and aesthetic elements, and has given birth to several excellent choral groups, including Grammy-winning LadySmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir, among others.
Sydney Masetlhe, the founder of Choral Mag, South Africa’s first independent choral music magazine, spoke with us about the South African music industry and the current state of choral music in the country in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Sydney hails from South Africa and resides there. He began his musical career as a trumpeter at the age of 12 and progressed to become a choral conductor. His parents, like most of our African parents, insisted that he study science in the university. He eventually realized that studying science was not something he wanted to do but he had to finish it to preserve his parents’ “investments.”
Sydney joined the choir while still in university, and was given the opportunity to express himself musically. He travelled to Germany with the university choir in 2005, where they participated at one of the international festivals, and his choir was one of the best, “if not the best,” in attendance. Following their win, a number of journals and newspapers profiled the choir, and they went viral in Germany at the time, but when they returned home, they encountered the polar opposite. Nobody in South Africa seemed to care about their accomplishments and just that led to the birth of the idea; Choral Mag.
“When I came back home, you know you would be expecting people to be waiting for you in the airport after such a great achievement in Europe. This side was something different, it was something that people did not give so much attention to so I thought that you know what, we need a publication that can showcase South African talent in SA and in Africa because the recognition we got abroad was quite amazing.”
Following that, he proceeded to “empower” himself with Marketing and Media Studies, and in 2015, after working for 5-7 years, he decided to launch Choral Mag which turned out to be a “great success.” South African artists, choral and opera singers were finally featured on a beautifully crafted local magazine, with their undiluted stories shared with the rest of the world, and they were ecstatic. The artists finally got “someone who tells the stories of South Africans from South Africa with South Africans.”
Choral Mag, as the name implies, is a choral music magazine based in South Africa. Choral Mag was launched in 2015 and has published quite a few of the South African classical and opera music stories over the years with contributors from UK, Ghana, Zimbabwe and so on.
The magazine was published in print for three to four years before going digital only during the pandemic in 2020. During that time, they began uploading online content to YouTube and hosting online fundraising concerts for artists such as soloists, pianists, and opera singers who relied on gigs and performances in concerts and workshops for a living. The Choral Mag team pre-recorded performances while adhering strictly to the Covid-19 rules, published them online and made income from selling tickets and links to the concerts.
Choral Mag highlights South African artists in much the same way that they manage them. Poets, music composers, classical and opera artists, and gospel artists are also all represented by the mother company “Choral World.” They provide artist management services, which would include marketing artists’ brands, coordinating and hosting for artists, and securing them gigs.
To work with artists, it first starts with a vetting process of auditioning them, reviewing and validating their talents by hosting a show with the artists to check how people react to the sound, and then subsequently move onto promoting that artist by designing packages that would best suit the artist’s choice and identity.
FUNDING THE DREAM
Sydney said that he had to fund the idea with personal investments from the inception until “it ran out.” Then they moved on to supporting the company with income from events and performances until the pandemic struck in 2020, disrupting that source. Even after the lockdown, the work rate declined, making it more difficult to earn revenue to improve the company.
“The pandemic was a nightmare” for the team and navigating the previous two years has been challenging mostly because their works are majorly performed outdoors.
They also have a wing of the company that travels across the country to record music and content for their online publications and channels in the hopes of attracting external marketers to pay and advertise on the channel, generating income. They would then compensate the artists that were featured on each show or material.
Sydney believes that the industry’s major impediment is the lack of investors and partners to support the industry financially. He also mentions that South Africa is experiencing problems getting government support for the arts, and Choral Mag is trying to spread the message across the country and the world that this profession should be treated like any other line of work (doctors, accountants, etc.) so that artistes can also make a living, because art plays a particularly significant role in our lives, including existentially, and not just for entertainment.
WORK SO FAR
Regardless of the fact that external funding will enable this group to go much further, they believe in not holding back since they have worked hard to attain success.
“The aim is to become, which we have strived to achieve over the years, the mouthpiece of South African opera and classical music. I got excited when I saw what you guys represent and what you guys are all about because I think the main problem around Africa as a continent is getting support for the art.”
They have previously collaborated with choral music ensembles such as the Tshwane University of Technology Choir, the URCSA Light of Hope Choir, and a variety of other freelancers.
Last year, they partnered with the National Art Council to gather valuable content from various parts of South Africa, such as profiling choral music conductors and artists, their crafts, and curating interesting stories about them, with the goal of presenting the talents to the world.
By 27th March 2022, Choral World will be hosting a concert called “Puo Concert” (“Puo” is the southern Sotho word for language). In this concert, they will be presenting 11 official languages of South Africa in songs in choral and traditional music. They aim “to show the world the linguistic diversity of South Africa and try to promote unity in diversity amongst the country” with this concert.
“Choral music in African traditional cultures was utilized as a strong indicator of communal approach to music making and its importance in modern culture shows a bond with [African music] tradition.”
South Africa appears to be at the forefront of this genre of music, with several choral groups and events taking place across the country. Choral Mag is likewise doing its part to promote and document this cultural trend.
Do you believe that people outside of South Africa will recognize this genre as much as we have recognized Amapiano? Why do you think this?