By Motlabana Monnakgotla
From humble beginnings to the limelight in Hollywood, their success is for every ordinary African with big dreams and a bigger mission.
From the dusty rural Moutse village in South Africa’s Limpopo province to the bright lights of Hollywood, the Ndlovu Youth Choir have proven there can be no impediment to global glory if your ambition is great and your passion greater.
When this group of young boys and girls came together, little did they know the world would rise in unison to applaud them. Late last year, their turn as the finalists of America’s Got Talent, a televized American talent show competition in the United States created by Simon Cowell, earned them prowess and praise.
So when an opportunity came to meet them at popular South African restaurant Nando’s in the suburb of Lorentzville in Johannesburg, during a launch event last month, I seized it with conviction and my camera.
The choir’s co-founder and choirmaster Ralf Schmitt started from the beginning, about how he got involved with the group at the opening of the amphitheater in the village of Moutse.
What started out as a mission to serve the community ended up becoming an even greater force – on the world stage.
“This is the same village that raised the Ndlovu Youth Choir powered by the Ndlovu Care Group. The group was doing amazing work with HIV awareness and treatment in the early 2000s and the amphitheater was built for the community to gather, receive information and do drama workshops around HIV/AIDS.”
Schmitt was contacted to do music for the opening in 2008 because of his track-record in the industry, as he was also part of the internationally-renowned Drakensburg Boys’ Choir.
“I’ve always loved choir and singing. I went on to study music and it worked from day one. I started conducting school choirs and worked with young people. I love composing, I love conducting, I love performing and I love teaching and the medium of a choir allows me to do them all,” he enthuses.
These young people can be the beacons of what’s possible in a rural community.Ralf Schmitt
He had originally suggested they start a brass band but because of their location in Limpopo, far from big city Johannesburg, it would have been difficult for the teachers and trainers to regularly access and develop them.
The choir became the obvious choice as part of the orphans and vulnerable children’s program at the Ndlovu Care Group.
The horrific HIV pandemic had left many orphaned and the program was meant as a healing curriculum for the community. It became so successful that when it came for the participants to leave school, they were not willing to leave the program as they were unable to find employment or afford secondary education.
Schmitt says thus an idea of transforming the choir into a platform to generate an income for unemployed youth was born.
Today, the choir boasts about 40 members and includes a job creation program for the older singers who do most of the performances.
The choir has also started a home schooling program for learners – a full-time tutor travels with them locally and internationally.
“When we turned professional in 2018, it took about six months to get us going. I called a few people I knew in the industry and bookings were coming in slow,” recalls Schmitt.
“We needed a product and the arrangement we did of a Zulu version of Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran, brilliantly translated by Sandile Majola and Sipho Hleza, went massively viral on social media and had 25 million views and that got the nation’s attention and that was the first time we got serious publicity and bookings started flooding in.”
Soon after, the choir performed live for a South African radio station and that’s where America’s Got Talent heard the Zulu arrangement and made contact and asked for videos.
He remembers he couldn’t get the videos out to the producers because of service delivery protests in the area. The choir conductor was blocked by an angry mob with burning tyres and rocks, but that didn’t stop the choir from performing at the Derby Theatre miles away from home.
“I am so pleased that these young people can be the beacons of what’s possible in a rural community, every single one of them are from that community and not anyone went and studied music at tertiary level, all that is produced is raw talent and they never had a music lesson in their life. As the artistic director, I try very hard at preserving that talent because that’s the magic,” he says.
The first time they got on stage, he recalls thinking that the audience didn’t know them; they probably just saw the group as kids from a rural community in South Africa.
However, the warmth they received was unforgettable. Whereas, in comparison, the experience at America’s Got Talent was intense and draining, but exhilarating, he recalls.
“It was nerve-racking when the music went down and the lights dimmed and Gabrielle Union [American actress] screamed ‘you are going through!’ and everyone just lost their minds. It was special we were through to the live finale.”
Thulisile Masanabo is one of the senior members in the choir who also assists with wardrobe. She has been with the choir since 2013 when she was 16 and very shy.
“I used to stand at the back of the row at the beginning. As the years went, I began to gain confidence and moved to the third row, then second, now, I’m in the first row,” says Masanabo.
She opened the song Africa by Toto wearing bright yellow garments to a noisy and ecstatic American crowd.
Looking back, she chuckles saying she had auditioned singing the South African national anthem.
“I was on my way back from school and Sandile called me in. He was standing outside and just calling people in to audition. He didn’t want to know if you can or cannot sing,” Masanabo says of her recruitment into the group.
All members of the choir are under the age of 30; among them, is 25-year-old Majola who helped arrange the Zulu version of Shape Of You.
He joined when he was a 14-year-old school boy accompanying his sister to the auditions.
“I was invited inside to try my luck on August 23, 2009,” he recalls vividly.
“I first traveled internationally with the choir in 2011 to Holland and the performance was average, it was not as nice as we perform today.”
He says the choir upped his self-esteem and he now can communicate better with people and perform more effectively on stage.
One of the songs instilled in him was written by Schmitt titled Believe dedicated to the choir.
“The message was for us, but now, it’s for other young people as well. They should never stop dreaming,” says Majola.
This young group of music-lovers is testament that believing and dreaming big can indeed make you cross borders.
Their journey was from a tiny village, to grabbing the limelight in one of the globe’s biggest talent search shows. The world is now truly their stage.