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Afloat (2012)


[1] If ye love me Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585)
[2] The crown of roses Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
[3] Oculi omnium Charles Wood (1866-1926)
[4] We, who are stars Peter Klatzow (b. 1945)
[5] I am the day star  
[6] Steal away  
[7] Nobody knows  
[8] Modimo, reboka Wena Sesotho Traditional, arr. S. Mavuso and T. Khumalo
[9] Hallelujah Leonard Cohen, arr. Barrie Carson Turner
[10] Sarie Marais Afrikaans Traditional, arr. Cecilia van Tonder
[11] Blackbird Lennon/McCartney, arr. John Woodland
[12] God Only Knows Wilson/Asher, arr. Stephen Carletti
[13] I’m goin’ up a yonder Walter Hawkins, arr. Martin Sirvatka
[14] Seasons of Love Jonathan Larson, arr. Roger Emerson
[15] Weeping Dan Heymann, arr. Luke Holder
[16] Pata pata! African Traditional, arr. S. Mavuso and T. Khumalo
[17] Magaliesburgse Aandlied Afrikaans Traditional, arr. G. G. Cillié


The UCT Choir aims to expose its audiences and singers to a rich selection of music from across the entire choral spectrum and this year has been no different. This varied repertoire has partially inspired the title of this year’s CD, ‘Afloat’ – a word which also appears in the second of Peter Klatzow’s Two Songs from the /Xam. The final line, “We live there, afloat”, is reproduced on the CD cover in the composer’s hand.

The first three tracks are taken from the European sacred choral music tradition. If ye love me is a four-part motet composed by Thomas Tallis, one of England’s greatest early composers. It is an example of ‘polyphony’, a musical texture characteristic of the European Renaissance, comprising four independent, interweaving melodic lines of equal importance. This is contrasted with Tchaikovsky’s The crown of roses in which the dominant melodic line sung by the sopranos is accompanied by chordal harmonies in the lower voice parts. Tchaikovsky makes use of ‘word-painting’ to tell the story of the child Christ in his garden, specifically writing the music to depict the meaning and character of the words at that moment. This can be heard especially in the lines, “With shouts they plucked them merrily” and “And with rough fingers pressed them down”. The final work of this set, Oculi omnium (‘The eyes of all’), is by the Irish composer Charles Wood who lived nearly a century ago. This is traditionally sung as a grace before a formal meal.

Two Songs from the /Xam was specially composed for the UCT Choir in 2011 by Peter Klatzow, Emeritus Professor in Composition at UCT. The words were selected by Klatzow from an anthology entitled Return of the Moon written by the late Stephen Watson, Professor in English at UCT. The /Xam were an indigenous San or Bushman group of Southern Africa and Watson’s collection is a reworking of their folklore, based on transcriptions made by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd at the end of the nineteenth century. Watson has tried to maintain the particular nuances and syntax of the extinct /Xam language in his translations in order to bring their words back to life. The pieces make reference to various mythologies of the /Xam; they believed, for example, that the moon was a bent veld shoe that had been “thrown into the sky” by the Mantis, their creator god. The two pieces contrast in their light and dark characters but are connected by a motif which opens the first piece and brings the second to a close. The open fifth chord sung by the tenors and basses in this motif evokes the vast openness of the Karoo, the /Xam’s homeland.

The Negro spiritual tradition arose from the enslaved African people in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although spirituals were primarily religious songs, they also formed a powerful medium for solidarity among a displaced and oppressed people. The two Negro spirituals on this CD – Steal away and Nobody knows – are arrangements of traditional songs by the English composer Michael Tippett who incorporated them into his oratorio A Child of Our Time. The oratorio drew its structure from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passions, where five spirituals replaced the recurring congregational chorales. Tippett’s work was a reaction to the persecution of the Jewish population which preceded the Second World War and, in using the spirituals, he looked to them as a universal voice for the oppressed in a poignant cross-cultural reference.

Modimo, reboka Wena (‘Mighty God, we thank You’) is an arrangement of a traditional Sesotho praise song by Thembinkosi Khumalo and our own Silindokuhle Mavuso. This is followed by a sensitive and flowing a capella arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s hit Hallelujah.

The CD moves to the choir’s lighter repertoire with an arrangement of the Afrikaans folk song Sarie Marais. The song was created during one of the Anglo-Boer wars, though the tune was most likely taken from an American Civil War song, ‘Ellie Rhee’. It is not clear whether Sarie Marais was a real person or simply a fictitious Afrikaans equivalent to Ellie Rhee. The song maintains its diverse heritage today, used as the official march of the United Kingdom's Royal Marines Commandos and the French Foreign Legion.

Blackbird is an arrangement of The Beatles’ number for the female voices of the UCT Choir. The guitar accompaniment in the original Beatles version was inspired by Bach’s suite for lute, Bourrée in E minor, where simultaneous melody and bass lines are picked on the upper and lower strings – mimicked in this arrangement by the second soprano and alto parts. Paul McCartney was motivated to write the song while in Scotland in 1968 in response to the escalation of racial tensions in the United States. In an interview in 2002, McCartney said: I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people's struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird. It's not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it's a bit more symbolic.

This is followed by the men of the choir who sing The Beach Boys’ hit God Only Knows. This song was arranged for the UCT Choir by local composer Stephen Carletti. When the original version of the song was recorded in Hollywood in 1966, 23 musicians played the instrumental parts; at that time, this was an astounding number of instrumentalists for a pop song. All of the musicians played simultaneously, creating what leader of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, called a rich, heavenly blanket of music. One hopes that our tenors and basses capture this rich instrumental texture in their own way with this animated rendition.

Whilst much of the choir’s repertoire is sung a capella,the choir boasts its own talented instrumentalists; Matthew Golesworthy accompanies the next two songs with the piano. This setting of the spiritual I’m goin’ up a-yonder with piano has a restrained and contemplative feel which contrast with the previous interpretations of spirituals heard on the CD.

The upbeat Seasons of Love is taken from the Broadway hit musical Rent. The musical follows a storyline loosely based on Puccini’s opera La bohème, where a group of bohemian friends struggle in life and love in New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the 1990s. The company number opens the second act of the show and asks, How do you measure a year in life? The answer: Measure in love.

The remaining tracks on the CD are a return to South Africa’s own diverse musical tradition. Weeping is an iconic anti-apartheid protest song of the late 1980s, made famous by the South African band Bright Blue. The song’s writer, Dan Heymann, was an unwilling solider drafted into the South African army during the apartheid years, and he was moved to write the song following the government’s clamp-down on the media in 1986. The words tell an allegory about P. W. Botha (the man who lived in fear) and his measures to protect the apartheid regime in the face of the growing discontent of the wider South African population (the demon he could never face), and under increasing scrutiny from the global media (the neighbours). In addition to its subversive message, the song successfully smuggled echoes of the then-banned anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika onto the airwaves where it evaded censorship measures and held number one in the charts on the government-run radio station for 2 weeks. The continued popularity of the song has kept it in the UCT Choir’s repertoire, with each successive year’s group bringing its own interpretation to this powerful piece.

The lively Phata phata! (‘Touch touch’) transports us down Johannesburg way for an energetic rendition of Miriam Makeba’s signature hit. Phata phata was a dance, described as a cross between limbo and rock and roll, popular in the swinging night clubs of 1950s Sophiatown. Miriam Makeba – ‘Mama Africa’ – made her name in this buzzing music scene and rose to iconic status as the first artist to take African music to a global audience.

The CD is brought to a close by a beautiful Afrikaans chorale known as the Magaliesburgse Aandlied (‘Magaliesburg Evening Song’). History has recorded that the melody was first transcribed by G. G. Cillié in 1950 in the house of Oom Frans Fouché in Doornhoek in the heart of the Magaliesburg. The reflective mood of this lullaby is a fitting end to our dynamic musical journey.