PORTSMOUTH — Weeks after arriving back home from South Africa, the 60 women of Voices from the Heart and two traveling musicians are still deeply moved by the connections they made during a three-week sojourn this summer.
After two years of planning, research and fundraising, the group went on what it named its Voices Across South Africa trip for a musical and humanitarian journey interspersed with cultural experiences.
Voices from the Heart is a 200-voiced women’s alternative chorus, based in Portsmouth, created 22 years ago by musical director Joanne Connolly of York, Maine. Sixty women from this group made the journey to South Africa along with local musicians Matt Jenson and Randy Armstrong.
Three years ago, Voices from the Heart was fortunate to host the Berg River Choir from Piketberg, South Africa, at South Church in Portsmouth. Members of Voices from the Heart invited the choir to stay in their homes while in the Seacoast.
As a result, the Berg River Choir reciprocated the invitation, and Voices Across South Africa singers visited and performed in Piketberg during the summer tour.
The group raised more than $25,000 to benefit organizations, churches and choirs it visited, the primary donation of $13,000 going to MusicWorks, a South African organization offering music therapy interventions for children and young people in Cape Town’s marginalized neighborhoods.
The group began its long trek from Boston to Cape Town, South Africa, via Amsterdam, on July 24.
Connolly arrived a day ahead of the rest of the singers so she “could get a lay of the land.”
“These are people I wanted to connect with, and I wanted it to be meaningful,” she said.
Connolly said she met a woman Bucie Cebo, who was her waitress/server for breakfast that first morning. Cebo is from Langa, a township of Cape Town.
“I asked her what languages she spoke as there are 11 languages spoken in South Africa, and Xhosa was one of them,” Connolly said.
“I sang one of the Xhosa songs I know and she sang with me then and there. It was very exciting.”
Connolly told Cebo that the next morning 60 singers would be there at breakfast and that they would all sing the song “Thula Sizwe” together.
"We did and she soloed on top of it,” she recalled. “It was a great starting point for my group.”
They invited Cebo to come back to the hotel the next night with some of the singers in her chorus.
“That night we all sang together and from that point on my singers would sing Xhosa and Zulu songs wherever they went – in restaurants, coffee shops and even at an African crafts fair,” Connolly said.
Karen Plante, a Voices member for four years and president of its board, said wherever they went, “people from the area would sing and dance with us.”
Plante was on the Voices Across Africa travel committee along with Claudia Ravin, Becky May, Mim Easton, Ann Bliss, Christine Pelham, Laura Donovan, Laura Knittweiss, Rebecca Gould and Lynn Schweihart.
“In restaurants the kitchen staff would come out, surprised and just start singing and dancing with us,” said Plante of York, Maine. “One place that stands out was when we visited the Amy Biel Foundation and everyone just started dancing.”
The nonprofit Amy Biehl Foundation was established to commemorate Amy Biehl, a white American anti-apartheid activist killed by a black mob during racial violence in 1993. The foundation takes youths and trains them in vocational fields (hospitality, cooking, beauty and wellness, textiles) so they can get jobs in a field that they like, and even become entrepreneurs in that field.
“It was a great connection,” Connolly said.
Bliss of Portsmouth has been with Voices since 2000. She was co-chairwoman of the fundraising committee for the South African trip and the travel coordinator for previous Voices’ trips.
“Each tour was special in its own way, but this trip felt most emotional for me,” Bliss said. “I was deeply moved by the connections we made with both young and old and how music always helps to cross all dividing lines. The connections felt genuine and special for all of us.”
Jenson, a multi-talented musician and professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, was especially touched by the visit to the Amy Biehl Foundation.
“What an afternoon,” he said. “The minute we kicked in, the response from the students was off the hook, ululation, heart fingers, pure energy being thrown back at us. Then they took the stage and threw down some traditional South African songs. After that we all sang and danced and yelled together – real connection.”
Contrasting cultural divides
Bliss noted that apartheid did not end that long ago and the remnants and economic divide was quite harsh.
“I have respect for the early efforts to heal the wounds of apartheid and also recognize that seeking justice is so complicated and painful,” she said. “Never a day went by while I was there that I didn’t think of our own country and the pains of our own deep divisions.”
Bliss felt Voices brought a strong message of peace and love, and that it was “without a doubt mutually communicated and received.”
“That in and of itself is quite a delicious blessing,” she said.
Connolly said wherever the group performed, she would make sure the songs chosen from their 30-song repertoire were appropriate.
The songs included some traditional gospel pieces, a Stevie Wonder tune (“As”), and some South African songs including the South African national anthem that has several different languages.
“I would have to adjust each concert or performance and everyone in the group was so accommodating,” she said. “For instance, in some churches clapping was not appropriate, so we’d wave our hands over our heads.”
Bliss noted the contrast in the surroundings when they traveled across the countryside.
“The razor wire and high fences stood in stark contrast to the amazing beauty of that country,” she said. “Every eyeful was luscious. The jagged mountain peaks were incomparable. I’ve seen the Alps and lived surrounded by the beauty of Andes, but I’ve never seen the likes of those mountains in South Africa.”
Jenson said the state of the world makes him pessimistic. He talked about playing at MusicWorks, a school located in a gang-influenced poor neighborhood where the music program does its best to prevent the kids from joining the gangs.
He and Armstrong did many impromptu workshops with children from MusicWorks and in other places they visited.
“The jam session with Buci (Cebo) broke my pessimism because of the force of truth, honesty, vulnerability and trust that was brought into that room, all because of singing, music and feminine power,” he said.
An hour before a concert the group was to perform at St. Oswald’s Church in Milnerton on Aug. 1, Connolly was told Archbishop Desmond Tutu might be in the audience, and not to let on to the chorus. St. Oswald’s is Tutu’s home church.
“And there he was, in the front row with his wife and daughter,” Connolly said. “We were beyond thrilled, and he got up and danced.”
It was certainly a highlight of the tour for Armstrong, a guitarist, percussionist and world music performer/educator who accompanied the group with Jenson to provide instrumentation.
“It was a great honor to perform for Desmond Tutu and his family, as well as sharing the stage with all the excellent choirs of all ages.” Armstrong said. “My favorite moments were the spontaneous songs and dancing that happened everywhere we went.
“I absolutely loved performing and traveling with my sisters in song and music brother, Matt Jenson. The humanitarian outreach and music making were amazing and heartfelt by all.”
Plante said it was fascinating to visit various townships and seeing choruses everywhere, even though the people in some places were living in one-room tin houses attached to each other.
“The kids start young,” she said. “I remember one boy who was just 10 years old directing a chorus.”
Plante also recalled singing with the group in an ancient cave, named the Mother Stone, along the ocean.
“It was a sacred site from the Cradle of Humankind,” she said. “The vibrations were beautiful.”
Less than half of the group returned Aug. 10, and 37 members stayed on for a two-day safari, returning Aug. 13.
A comment made by a woman to Connolly probably sums up the trip’s success.
“A woman came up to me and touched my arm,” Connolly said. “She said, ‘I never thought I would hear a person with skin this color sing that song.’”