Alexandra Youth Choir,
South African Choral:
Songs of the Alexandra Youth Choir

(Naxos World, 2002)

For those of you familiar with or simply interested in the various musical styles of southern Africa, Naxos World has released a series of CDs that will probably slake your thirst. To quote some of their promotional material, "Naxos World has taken a repertoire-oriented approach, ideal for world music listeners who are drawn to cultural traditions and musical innovations rather than big-name artists."

One of Naxos World's CDs, South African Choral: Songs of the Alexandra Youth Choir, contains 20 tracks of choral music that has a definite South African feel to it. The music incorporates complex African rhythms with choral stylings more familiar to Christian churchgoers in the West. The melodic combination of vocals are made up of children of all ages, singing in Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa and English.

The Alexandra Youth Choir was formed in 1988 as a way to offer children an alternative to a life of poverty and crime. While the line-up has surely changed over the last 15 years, what has remained has been a strong adherence to African tradition as well as a sound that demonstrates the power behind many voices singing as one. Sometimes harmony has a way of making a good song that much better.

Most of the songs on this CD are not accompanied by instruments. Instead, clapping and clucking provide the beat -- if there is one. While these songs will grow on you after repeated listening, I can easily say that the few songs that have an added rhythm section are the best on the album. The instruments embed an extra, complementary element to the music that makes it even more accessible to world music listeners.

"Saka-Band" is one of the better examples of this blending. Even without translation, the easy melody invites you to sway to the beat. The liner notes have a lot of information about South Africa and Alexandra, but only lightly touch on each individual song. For this track, it states that this is a traditional piece inviting all Africans to come and dance. I guess I didn't need a translation since I tend to bop side to side whenever I hear it.

One of the most Western sounding songs is "I Want To See," which is performed in English without accompaniment. The vocals are led by a male vocalist who sings each line before the chorus repeats what he says. The song starts off a little slow before changing tempo mid-stream for a brief stint. Backed by the beat of clapping hands, I could easily picture this song being performed in churches throughout the U.S. Bible Belt.

The last song I will mention is the last one on the CD. "Nkosi Sikelela" was composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897 and is South Africa's (as well as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia's) national anthem. Gloria Bosman provides some solo vocals that might actually bring a tear to your eye. For a song that was banned during Apartheid, there is a lot of emotion packed into this rendition.

During the recording of South African Choral, 34 youths were led by conductor Mike Mncube. Several other artists also contributed their talents on various instruments. In other words, this was a huge undertaking! Fortunately, Naxos World is mostly interested in sharing world music with the world, so their prices are lower than your average CD. If I have piqued your interest in checking the CD out, is only a click away!

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 8 February 2003

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