Music Review: Ndlovu Youth Choir – We Will Rise, Or In Praise Of The Elephant In The Room

November 1, 2020

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Ndlovu Youth Choir – We Will Rise / Musical director: Ralf Schmitt / Theatre Of Marcellus, Emperors Palace, Kempton Park, Johannesburg


South African choirs are a marker for excellence in many genres, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Soweto Gospel Choir being two of the most high-profile success stories. The Ndlovu Youth Choir, whose international stock was boosted by a successful run on Season 14 of America’s Got Talent, have all the makings of another world-beating outfit, which is especially satisfying given their backstory. Originally formed as part of a community development programme set up by the Ndlovu Cares Group in rural Limpopo, the choir was simply an edifying after-school activity for some of the vulnerable kids (the current choristers range from 14-24 in age) involved. However, when clear, sublime natural talent was combined with good management and focused discipline, it became evident that professional performance and recording was an option, giving the singers (as well as those working in support roles) potential earning power they might not have otherwise enjoyed.

With the benefit of the impetus provided by their American sojourn – as choirmaster and conductor Ralf Schmitt points out in this concert, it’s a pity their talent wasn’t fully appreciated at home first, but all assistance is useful – it’s quite possible Ndlovu Youth Choir will be the next sustainable South African success story here and abroad.

Opening night in the choir’s run of four shows (playing to a limited, socially distanced, masked audience) at Emperors Palace showed that the novelty value of the US reality show should be disregarded when forming an opinion of their abilities. While the arrangements of the huge hits of other artists (Higher Love, Africa, Circle Of Life, Jolene, African Dream, The Greatest Showman and Jerusalema among them) transform those songs into fresh, dynamic works that can be instantly connected to because of their existing popularity, it is the technical strengths of the performers – and it is more impressive because of their youth – that mark this outfit as world class.

Wearing costumes designed by an ex-chorister and dancing to choreography put together by another ex-chorister – singers can’t stay in the choir once they get too old and are replaced by youngsters, but these roles ensure that ongoing training and employment are viable – the 30-strong choir simply don’t make mistakes. Their movements are the result of exhaustive drilling, but have a wonderfully natural fluency, combining with the bright colours of their outfits to make them seem collectively larger than life and projecting – through ever-present smiles and the practiced projection of their voices – an infectious joy that is a powerful add-on to the conventional enjoyment of a well-presented concert.

Schmitt, who pops on and off the stage to introduce songs and singers and share the choir’s story, is unflaggingly enthusiastic, making it easy for the audience to believe in his charges as much as he does.

The inclusion of a couple of strong original compositions are the final confirmation that, whatever Ndlovu Youth Choir is now, working their way further up the ladder as restrictions on performances are eased, they will soon be more. One of the current soloists is just 14 – what excellence is already in place is secure for years to come, and the way the choir is run will ensure that more talented youngsters will be equipped to perform and thrill audiences going forward.

We Will Rise feels like a very prescient title indeed.

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