With the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652, the indigenous people of southern Africa were exposed to European musical trends for the first time. Some traditional African rituals went untouched, but the most dramatic transformation took place within African song - the “composing” of choral sounds. Many of these compositions, if written down, employed the tonic sol-fa system ( technique for teaching sight-singing ), which Christian missionaries taught as a quick means to accustom singers to major/minor tonality. As indigenous communities did not read or write, in time the tonic sol-fa system eventually converted into dual notation.
During the period of apartheid, collective singing by black South Africans developed in two ways. First, choral competitions began to emerge. Just before and during the early years of apartheid, choral competitions would also include a popular musical form called isicathamiya. This form of collective singing originated in the migrant worker communities outside of urban areas. Isicathamiya, is characterized by simple rhythms, tight four-part blending, and small, light choreography. Second, as music became more politically motivated against white South Africans, native South African musicians looked toward their traditional music and customs as a source for protest songs.
In the last part of the apartheid era, composers found ways of including criticism in their choral music through carefully chosen texts or the brief inclusion of traditional African melodies, rhythms, instruments, styles, and texts. An example of this integration included translations of well-known European works into indigenous languages. For example, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Aida were translated into Afrikaans, Handel’s Messiah into Zulu, and Mozart’s Die Zauber öte into Xhosa.
Post-Apartheid, the delightful healing and reuniting power of Choral Music was exhibited at the composing of a new national anthem. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) begins with the Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho. The hymn-like tune, composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897, was adopted in 1925 by the ANC as its official anthem. For many Africans, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was a musical representation of the struggle against apartheid, and singing it was an act of defiance. The anthem then continues with the opening lines of the Afrikaans anthem Die Stem van Suid Afrika (The Voice of South Africa) and concludes with a translation of the Afrikaans text in English.
Likewise, Die Stem van Suid Afrika was sung at the opening of each Parliamentary session beginning in 1938 and was played by the SABC at the close of every daily broadcast. While these two songs possess deep-seated racial associations, their combined use is a strong indication of how symbolically important choral music is in the representation of a new South Africa.
Choral music’s unique role in the struggle against apartheid once was to disseminate information, promote traditional unity, and express hope and solidarity. Now, South African choral music has expanded its profound messages. You now find text that urge for the cessation of violence, encourage awareness about HIV/AIDS, cure social ills, and promote traditional African cultural identity.