I’ve been singing in a choir for fourteen years. I only realised this recently. I sang in both my primary school and high school choir for all twelve years of my school career, and out of my four years at university, I sang in the North-West University PUK-Choir for two of them. This year, when I returned to my home town of Mossel Bay, I started singing in the local chamber choir called Sotto Voce. It seems like I can’t get away from it, for some reason.
Which led me to wonder why it has such a hold on me. It’s not like I’m a muso who can name all the Beethoven symphonies off the top of my head, or never sees the sun because I’m too busy listening to opera or practising the cello. On the contrary, I’m a travel journalist. I practically live outdoors.
Recently, this chamber choir (that I’m the newest member of) was part of a mass choir group that performed with the world renowned Dutch organist, Martin Mans. He’s famous for his improvisations of popular classical and devotional music, hymns and folk songs. I know, the organ is not your typical light listening musical instrument. But trust me, if you’ve never experienced the resonating power of an organ’s sound in a church or a cathedral… You haven’t lived. At least, not musically. Even if you’re a punk rocker or indie fan, good music should be appreciated, in whatever form.
Anyway, for this concert with Martin Mans, a few choirs from the Mossel Bay community combined into a mass choir to sing five songs with him. We sang Afrikaans arrangements of songs like “Sing joy to all the world” by Lloyd Larson, “Plea from Africa” by John Knox Bokwe and the Afro-American spiritual, “Go down, Moses.” Martin’s accompaniment transformed the songs into something vastly different than the piano accompanied rehearsals.
The hall of the Mossel Bay NG Moederkerk (roughly translated as ‘Dutch Reformed Mother Church’) was literally packed. The church is built like an amphitheatre, which means that if it’s full, there are people everywhere you look. It was so crowded, that the organisers had to pack some chairs onto the stage in front of the pedestal in front – obviously, Martin was sitting at the organ keys on the gallery. It was stuffy. Some older ladies actually brought a Chinese fan to cool themselves, as if attending a classical opera performance. The choir members had to wear all-black, so I was also aware of hot air caused by many breaths within the church space.
The rest of the program included Martin’s improvisations of “Psalm 141”, “Amazing Grace”, Dutch and South African folk songs (the crowd sang along to “Sarie Marais”) and “Land of Hope and Glory”. He also played some popular classics like “Toccata” by M. Leclerc, “Music was my first love” by John Miles and “Introspection” by Rogier van Otterloo. No voices, just organ music. There was a camera placed above his shoulder to project the footage of his hands on screens for the crowd. So, people could see the flying motions of his hands over the black and white keys. Artist’s hands. What makes the organ quite a difficult instrument to play, is the fact that the player has to use all four limbs to play, independently from one another. There are foot pedals beneath, almost like another set of keys in addition to the two above.
My personal highlight of the evening: the Martin and the choir’s rendition of “Psalm 16”, also known as “Neem my in beskerming, o God” (Take me in Your protection, oh God). The melody to this Afrikaans verse was composed by Awie van Wyk – the previous conductor of the NWU PUK-Choir. Now, you probably realise why it’s so special to me. In the PUK-Choir, there are six traditional songs that every year’s choir members include in their repertoire, since the choir’s origin more than 40 years ago. So, there are generations of PUK-Choir members that can still sing along to the same few songs – “Psalm 16” is one of them. And it’s a song that I actually sang as part of the PUK-Choir two years ago, at another performance by Martin Mans in Potchefstroom, the North-West Province – isn’t that a coincidence?
I’m often still surprised at the kind of events that take place in Mossel Bay, a fairly small town in the Garden Route. An internationally acclaimed organist, right here in the local church. And with such an extraordinary instrument… It was an honour to be part of the evening. I also think that now, I’m even more convinced that choir music will always be a part of my personal life – something that gives me joy on a whole other level than my other interests, like writing or hiking or drawing. Once you develop that love for music, never leaves you. It’s a community that I’ve been privileged enough to experience for fourteen years. And I still enjoy every moment of it.
Never heard of Martin Mans? It’s fine, you’re just living under a rock. Listen to these videos to get an idea (“Music was my first love”, the second one, is my favourite).