Communal Singing Creating Ties

At Williams, all students pursue a January Winter Study Project in each of their four years. Course selections cover a wide range of topics that often expand out from the classroom and provide extensive opportunities in a variety of environments. Popular Winter Studies have included a mathematics course on the art and science of baking, an English course titled, “Further Studies in the Undead,” and an anthropology/sociology course on using meditation to reduce stress.

Williams Choirs in South AfricaFor Brad Wells, Winter Study is a time to introduce students to new music and cultures. Wells is the Clay Artist in Residence and Williams’ choral director. He leads both the Williams College Concert Choir and the Williams Chamber Choir. This past January, Wells and Austin C. Okigbo, the Sterling Brown ’22 Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, led more than 30 students from both choirs to South Africa.

For 18 days, the group traveled to the Durban and Cape Town areas, singing with South African choirs and for South African singing communities. As the students learned about the history of South Africa, they gained exposure to various singing styles.

“In South Africa,” explains Wells, “communal singing happens with a frequency and an energy that is remarkable. There is a vigor and value of singing in daily life there that is very different from singing here in the United States.”

For example, when the group arrived in Durban, they were greeted by a group of porters who were also a quintet that sings in the isicathamiya style—a type of secular a cappella choral singing developed in South Africa by migrant Zulu communities.

Senior and music major Dan Kohane is a composer interested in world music. For him, the trip was, “an ideal exposure to an entirely new music culture.”Williams Choirs in South Africa

“Everyone,” he says, “came back thinking about music differently than we did going in.” Direct engagement with the people of South Africa made the difference. “Beyond merely learning and performing the songs native to South Africa,” Dan explains, “we engaged directly with the singers there, teaching them our music and learning theirs. Singing is such a part of the culture that they even sing their national anthem in four-part harmony; everybody sings, with love and without fear, and their music is more beautiful and powerful for it.”

Junior Hannah Hindel, a political science and Chinese major, found the trip rewarding in many ways. Besides being able to sing in all the languages of South Africa, she also, “had the opportunity to use Winter Study to learn more about a country recently coming out of the struggles of apartheid, and to communicate through music.”

One of the key elements of the trip was sharing concerts, including one with a group in Durban called Siphithemba, a small choir of HIV-positive singers who appropriate African (especially Zulu) songs and dance to their advocacy work. Wells had heard about this group years ago when he was in South Africa. In an odd twist of fate, Williams hired Okigbo, an ethnomusicologist, who worked with the Siphithemba Choir for his doctoral dissertation. Okigbo was instrumental in organizing a concert with the Williams College Choir, Siphithemba, and the Durban Cathedral Choir.

“It was one of the most memorable concerts any of us has experienced,” says Wells. Hannah agrees, adding, “Now I appreciate the role music can play in intercultural cooperation and exchange. I have seen first-hand the joy it can bring to people.”