Wits Choir sings and dances at 60
- Wits University
The Choir officially celebrated its 60th birthday at Constitution Hill with its hefty production “A Choir on a Hill, 60 years – thinking back, looking forward".
This impressive diamond jubilee marks the Choir’s enduring legacy of transcending racial, gender, age, cultural and class divides to bring textured and rich South African choral music to the world.
As the song Ndikhokhele Bawo reached its height, the choir in their beautiful, individually sewn South African garb, combined their characteristic dance moves, and drumming with singing. Indeed, the choir’s singing invites the spirit of community, with the audience ululating in a traditional call and response setting. It’s in this sacred, heady space that the worries of the outside world dim in the light of music and the best of what humanity offers.
The Choir’s conductor Dalene Hoogenhout, who has been at the helm for 28 years, believes that the Wits Choir’s broad repertoire has made it one of the most unique in the world. “We represent what was envisioned for the Rainbow Nation. We’re from diverse backgrounds, and we’re a family. Our abiding motto is ‘Excellence through Diversity’.”
The Wits Choir was started by a few engineering students wanting to put up a musical in 1962. The Choir was a haphazard organisation, but evolved into a society, then an official choir. There have been moments when all seemed lost, however. When the Choir was managed by the music department in the early 90s, singing in it was compulsory for students to receive a performance certificate. The students hated it. In fact, so much so that some of them sabotaged performances. It was then that the Choir was disbanded. Remarkably, the Choir was reignited after concerned students and lecturers approached the then Vice-Chancellor (VC) and Principal, Professor Robert Charlton (1988-1997). Charlton took the Choir under the wing of the VC’s office and approached Hoogenhout to constitute the Choir in 1993.
In 2022, there are two Choirs comprising the Wits Choir: The Young Wits Choir (which began in 2013), and the Clder choir of 25 people. The main Choir tours the world and performs at special occasions. “The Young Wits Choir was started to give more singers the opportunity to be a part of the Wits Choir family and is for people who don’t have a lot of time on their hands, or who are beginners in choral music and performance. They are a Choir in their own right,” explained Hoogenhout.
The Choir is made up of younger and older people. “While we sing together, the older working people, who may be actuaries, staff members or medical doctors, form mentoring bonds with students,” noted Hoogenhout.
Many members of Wits Choir have gone on to start their own choirs. The West Campus Staff Choir, comprised of cleaning staff, were one of the guest choirs who also sang at the 60th celebration.
In order to be self-sustaining, the Choir is income generating and thrives on concert and membership fees. “What’s remarkable is that the members learn about leadership, organisation and financial savviness.” Choir members are part of particular portfolios and are responsible for certain aspects of the choir’s healthy functioning. While the Choir is financially independent, no one is excluded from the Choir due to financial restraints.
The Choir represents Wits’ dreams and values on the occasion of its centenary.
The Wits Choir was intrinsic to the university’s 100th birthday celebrations, with A Choir on the Hill as the final event. The Choir formed an integral part of the University’s Homecoming Celebrations and other centenary festivities in September this year. They performed at the opening of the Walk for Freedom through the streets of Braamfontein, sang at the Alumni Welcome Function, the Light Show, the Free People’s Concert, and did a flash mob and performance at the Founders Tea.
At A Choir on the Hill, Hoogenhout looked at the stage set against the backdrop of the Constitutional Court and Old Fort and the twinkling lights of Hillbrow. “It was apt that the concert was at Constitution Hill, because the Choir models so much of the ideals enshrined in the country’s constitution. Indeed the Honourable Justice Richard Goldstone is the Choir’s patron. Justices Edwin Cameron and Dikgang Moseneke are staunch supporters too.”
In the past, the Wits Choir has spread the magic of South African music and culture through tours to Namibia (1998), Kenya (2001), Argentina (2003), the Czech Republic (2006), and the Seychelles (2009); on the Fringe of the 2008 and 2010 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and in 2011 to the USA and Canada. Wits Choir and Young Wits Choir undertook a combined tour to Namibia in 2015 to critical acclaim. And in 2017 Wits Choir went on a tour of Germany, Austria, and the South of France.
“The Wits Choir represents the university wherever we are. We uphold integrity, a sense of community, and a deep respect for individual differences and a deep love for the music of South Africa and Africa. Our Choir is a big family.”