A hush grips the auditorium as the long-awaited concert by one of the world’s most renowned chorales gets underway.
Wearing neatly-ironed shirts and white frills over royal-blue waistcoats, the Drakensberg Boys School Choir launches into Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and a collective thrill runs through the audience.
The music and the dramatic backdrop of the Drakensberg mountains set the seal on the choir’s first in-person Christmas concert since the Covid pandemic.
The ensemble, whose members are aged between nine and 15 years, is one South Africa’s finest cultural exports — its most racially and culturally diverse chorale, and a beacon of hope in a troubled country.
The choir uses “music as vehicle for social mobility, for academic success (and) personality-building in a country that has been riddled by issues of race,” said Pitika Ntulia, a cultural historian.
“The school is almost magical, the location in the mountains… the fact that we can sing almost in the mountains everyday, it’s amazing,” said Nicholas Robinson, 14, standing tall on manicured lawns, sporting a black blazer.
A fellow student at the boarding school, built on a 100-acre (40-hectare) estate in the Champagne Valley near the border with Lesotho, Ethan Palagangwe, 12, hails from Mitchells Plain, a crime-riddled Cape Town suburb.
Palagangwe landed a scholarship out of 1,600 boys auditioned after his mother responded to an ad in a local newspaper.
Born to a law-enforcement officer and a singer, the short and round-faced boy smiles, reminiscing how he started singing at home, aged eight.
“We would sing out of nowhere, singing karaoke,” he says.
He is now one of the school’s top musical achievers.
Boarding and tuition at the school cost between $8,600 and $11,500 annually, depending on age.
Palagangwe’s fees are jointly raised between well-wishers in a scholarship scheme dubbed “back-a-buddy”.
– ‘Rainbow voices’ –
The multilingual choir’s repertoire ranges from classics to contemporary pop and traditional tunes.
“This is the only choir in the world that can sing in any genre,” boasts conductor Vaughan van Zyl, mopping his brow between rehearsals at the height of the South African summer.
“Give these boys anything classical, pop, African traditional music from other countries — different languages… sacred music, secular music, they can do it all.”
Styled on Austria’s Vienna Boys choir, the Drakensberg chorale started 55 years ago at the height of the apartheid era with 21 boys, all white.
Today, it has a multi-racial roll call of 70 students, who perform at home or around the globe when they are not busy with lessons and exams.
One of the choir’s proudest moments was to stage a show for Nelson Mandela atop the Drakensberg mountain.
“In that choir you hear the rainbow voices,” said historian Ntuli, in reference to the “Rainbow Nation” term used by Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa.
Lulo Dlulane, 11, recently joined the school. He wants to pursue a career in music production and composing.
“Music is a language of all sorts,” he said, clutching award certificates he had just received. It “connects people… and just unites us”.
His mother, Lungelwa Dlulane, a 39-year-old music-loving medical doctor, said she heard about the choir as a teenager, and “prayed” to have a son so she could send him to the school.
– ‘Boys become men’ –
The gumboot dance, a uniquely South African dance performed while wearing wellington boots to powerful percussion, is one the boys flawlessly transition to after singing classics.
“Choreography and dancing is such a (big) part of what we do,” said Van Zyl.
Baritone William Berger, 43, performs opera internationally, thanks to his grounding at the school.
What distinguishes the Drakensberg from other choirs is “this full-bodied African sound,” not “like this light European kind of typical boys’ choir noise,” he said.
The school’s first black student, Loyiso Bala, joined in 1990, four years before apartheid was swept away. Today, he is one of the country’s most popular musicians.
Packing academic responsibilities, sports and a daily two-hour music rehearsals, is no mean feat.
“It’s ultimately through that very challenge… they build resilience” and self-discipline, said school head Dave Cato.
Those precious skills will be put to use when the children leave the cocoon of the school.
They will have to find a way forward in life, in a country beset by crime, poverty and the lingering wounds of apartheid.
The school “is a place where boys become men,” said Bongi Msimang-Luthuli, mother of pupil Khwezilomso Msimang, 15.
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