Effortless harmony

May 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

When I was a student, in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to attend a church service that lasted just over four and a half hours.

Yes, lucky.

There was nothing grand about the building or its Christians. It took place on a Sunday morning in a township just outside Grahamstown in a hot, humble tin church, furnished with simple wooden benches and a lectern. No stained glass windows, no soaring pipe organ, no columns or frescoes or hangings. And yet, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever visited.

For those of you who aren’t South African, one of apartheid’s strategies was to sequester non-white people into townships, or ‘locations’ as they used to be known – far enough away from the centre of towns and cities so they didn’t ‘blot’ the landscape of white utopia, but close enough to commute and provide cheap labour. And it was in one of these townships that I attended the church service.

I remember marvelling at the children. Anyone who wasn’t a babe in arms sat upright on those benches for the duration of the service. There was no fidgeting, no distraction, no passing of notes or poking each other in the ribs. They sat dead still, long after I began to tire in the heat and dust, attentive and participating in all of the singing.

And there was a lot of singing.

There were the usual hymns and songs, sung in glorious, rich, multi-part harmony, and completely a capella. Every time someone agreed with the minister, instead of calling out their agreement, they would stand up and burst into song. The entire congregation would rise, sing its full-throated agreement, sit down again and the sermon would resume. You can see why the service took so long. And I loved every minute.

It’s one of the things I love about South Africans. We sing when we’re happy, we sing when we’re sad, we sing when we’re angry. Sometimes we sing purely for the joy of being together. I did a workshop at a school recently where the choirmistress told me that at the beginning of every school day, the whole school gathered in the quad to sing: I wish every day could start like that.

Because for much of my life I sang in choirs, and for me the best part was never the performance, but the moment when, having gone to separate rooms to learn our parts, we would reconvene and for the first time hear the glorious whole in all its intricacy and beauty.

And that is my wish for this still-fractured, still-scarred country. The glorious whole, the effortless harmony, the soaring heights I know we can achieve if we just remember how to sing.

Note: this post was inspired by the tweet below:

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