The Great Wilderness Choir

By Dr Katy Johnson

Walking in to the old disused shop in the Skukuza staff living quarters, you would be forgiven for thinking that you are in the wrong place. It is hard to contemplate how a choir that competes at national competitions practices in an old room filled with chairs and tables that also acts as a community kitchen, TV room, children's play room and meeting place. But that is the beauty of the Kruger National Park Choir; they don't need an amphitheatre or auditorium to sound spectacular.

"We opened our choir to any Kruger resident", choir conductor and chairwoman Lucy Nhlapo, Kruger's general manager for tourism and marketing explains. "We have approximately 40 choir members here in Skukuza and then more people in the Letaba and Mopani choirs. Our choir members range from management staff to contractors, there are even field rangers. We encourage anyone to come, as there is very little for residents to do in the living quarters, so the choir is seen as a very positive activity and improving community spirit and involvement."

Listening to the choir sing, you can hear the passion and pride in every single voice as they combine in perfect melody and fill the room with a warmth and presence. As the choir changes into their latest uniform, Lucy Nhlapo describes how the choir came to be.

"It all started at a management meeting where the previous Kruger managing executive, Dr Bandile Mkhize and the KNP management heard the Mopani choir sing for the first time. This was the choir formed by then Mopani hospitality services manager William Nkuna. Dr Mkhize suggested that William Mabasa, the KNP general manager public relations and communications, and I organise a Kruger-wide choir, as music has always been my passion. Wherever I have worked in the past I have also sang, I have been singing all my life, so starting a Kruger choir seemed like a brilliant idea. William Mabasa and myself held an informal meeting to try and encourage residents to come sing. By this time the Lower Sabie choir followed, led by Miriam Rapoo. There was a lot of interest, but it soon became clear we would be starting from scratch. Very few people knew how to sing, so we had to start by teaching people notes."

As the choir warms up it is hard to believe these are the same people who had to be taught how to sing in 2005, the transformation has been miraculous. In 2007 just two years after forming they competed in the Xilombe competition and a year later they entered their first Old Mutual Music Competition, conducted by Johan Sambo. "It was a very nervous time for us, we were very anxious as we didn't know what was coming. Especially as we had to sing a vernacular piece and a Handel's Messiah song called "Oh Father whose almighty Power", Lucy recalls with a smile, "all we wanted was not to come last and we didn't, it was a big thing for us as we are not a full time choir. Everyone has their own jobs, jobs that often come in the way of practicing."

Practice is something every person in the choir is passionate about, choir member Dimeto explains "I come to learn how to sing, I want to entertain people. Being part of the choir has boosted my confidence, it has given me a goal in life". Every Tuesday and Thursday the members get together and music fills the old shop. "Being able to sing and dance, it is my passion and brings me happiness", Sinna Mdluli, another choir member explains. She like most of the members feels the choir gives her an outlet for stress, "life is stressful, but when we come here and sing we forget our stress. We can share our problems and release them through song".

"It also provides education", Lucy explains, "we sing in seSotho, English, xiTsonga, isiZulu and Italian, learning new songs and even having songs written for us. We sang at Kruger's 110th birthday and SJ Khoza wrote the song 'Great Wilderness Great' for us. It is now our favourite song and we love performing it".

With that the choir burst into song and I would challenge anyone listening to not get shivers up their spine. The resonating beauty of their voices coming together in spectacular unison, and flow of their feet keeping perfect rhythm, is enough to give even the most hardened individual goose bumps.

So what's next for this fledgling choir? They hope to perform again at the Old Mutual Music Competition, as they were unable to do so last year due to the World Cup. Their ultimate dream however is to produce a CD, but this will rely on the generosity of sponsors who will be needed if their dream is ever going to turn into a reality.

For the mean time you will be able to see the choir at a number of Kruger open days and events. "People do request that we sing for them, especially for weddings in the Park", Lucy tells me with a huge sense of pride. It was the request of the renowned American boys' choir, Purdue, which brought home to the Kruger Choir how good they really were. "When the Purdue Choir came to South Africa", Lucy explains, "They specifically asked to sing with us. It was such an honour to sing with such an established choir and we learnt a lot, both about singing and ourselves".

With the choir flourishing under the guidance of its impassioned conductor and the dream of a CD in the pipeline there is a lot for the choir to sing about. However, for me the biggest achievement is the sense of pride, passion and empowerment being a part of the Kruger Choir has given every single member.

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