The story of the African Choir 1891 has been quite widely chronicled. The amazing journey is written about in at least three books, and is the subject of a theatre production, television documentary and growing academic research.
Jane Collins, Professor of Theatre and Performance at Wimbledon is the author of the theatrical production, ‘‘Umuntu, Ngumuntu, Ngabantu: The story of the African Choir.”
She articulates the story: After anAfrican America group called the Virginian Jubilee Singers visited South Africa in 1890; a group of singers from choirs at mission stations in Kimberley and Lovedale were inspired. Author Veit Erlman in his book South Africa and the West, wrote how this event '”set the minds of black South Africans ablaze by evoking ideas of freedom and development.”
A South African Jubilee Choir organised by two white professional performers and entrepreneurs, Walter Letty and John Balmerwere assembled. The choir was led by Paul and Eleanor Xiniweand included the famous human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke(née Manye), and her younger sister Katie Makanya.
“The majority of the choir were educated by missionaries, who saw education as the means to enlightenment and freedom,” said Collins. In 1890 a group of young people from Kimberley performed around the Eastern Cape and the following year a tour was arranged to the UK. Paul Xiniwe,“a black nationalist” invested some of his own money as well as some funding from the church and possibly the government. The official mission of the African Choir was to raise funds for education back at home, however it was also a commercial venture. Their goals were not achieved, as Collins explains, “They all underestimated the inherent racism of the British establishment and the objectives of the Imperial regime.”
In London, the Stereoscopic Company commissioned a photo-shoot of the choir and archived the material in theHulton archive, a division of the Getty Image Library.
In 2014, nearly 125 years after the event, senior curator at London Gallery, Autograph ABPand doctoral student at the University College of London, Reneé Mussai rediscovered these images. As part of an on-going research programme Black Chronicles/The Missing Chapter archive, the images were printed and exhibited at Harvard University in Boston and at the National Gallery in London in the same year.
“It is significant not only for the history of photography in relation to race and representation - but also in the context of wider cultural histories on a global scale.” Reneé Mussai
Unrelated image from Inhambane musuem
The Missing Chapter archive is founded on the ideals of the late Professor Stuart Hall and explores the relationship between the British colonialists and the African colonised.
“The explicit mission,” emphasised Mussai, “is to depict black people in Britain during the 19th century, and redress the visual record and re-insert black figures into a history of representation often unbalanced.”
Individuals in the African Choir had different motivations for visiting the UK. When Maxekeleft South Africa with the choir as a twenty year old, “she wanted to raise consciousness about the plight of the miners and conditions in the mines. In London and Manchester she associated with many of the radicals and suffragettes,” described Collins.
Maxeke later became the first South African woman of African origin, to be given a degree, awarded a B.SC by an American University in 1901. In 1913 she led the woman’s pass law marches. She was a founding member of the Bantu Women’s League, and the AME Church’s Widow’s Mite Society which contributed enormously to education. Her achievements are an on-going point of research, documented inDr ThozamaApril’s University of Western Cape Centre for Humanities and Research 2012 doctoral.
Sound artist Phillip Miller was first inspired by the story when reading the book ‘The Calling of Katie Makanya,’ by Margaret McCord. He recalls how Makanya the song-bird of the African choir was invited to return to London on contract and flatly refused.
“This speaks to questions of alienation, displacement and being looked at as the other,” explained Miller. “Their experiences abroad were complicated,both good and bad, a real human story.”
Miller together with his partner, Thuthuka Sibisi who previously worked with William Kentridge in Rome, partnered with Autograph ABP to create a sound installation reconstructed from a copy of a recital programmeof the African Choir’s performancefor the philanthropic Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
“This programme was divided into two halves, a Western music section which included Christian hymns and some classical music and popular arias, and traditional African songs, some of which were written by important choral composers, John Bokwe and Reverend TiyoSoga,” explained Miler.
The programme concluded with ‘God save the Queen,” which the choir also performed on invitation to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
The sound installation was imagined as a counterpoint to the images, and a “subjective revision of the original program,” as Sibisi termed it. Together with fifteen young vocal collaborators, Miller and Sibisi engaged in a series of improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Townduring 2015.
The reimagined choir work-shopped and recordedfour songs from the original repertoire in acapellastyle.Rossini’s ‘Cujusanimam,’ shifts across a multiple of genre’s exploring the relationship of opera to choral music through barber-shop blues.Singamawelea traditional Xhosa hymnjuxtaposes male and female voices.Bokwe’scomposition ‘UloTixoMkulu is renderedandthe version of God Save the Queen shifts from the four part harmony, via a Norwegian improviser to a gospel andisichatimiyasound with traces of imbongi praise poetry. A new soundscape called “Footstamps” was added. "Our idea was to imagine a sound world of the voices for the choir which examines its relationship to the 'silence' of the photographs,” said Miller.Sibisi added, “Time and place was brought to the fore by the collaboration between the sound and image – giving voice to ghostly bodies.” The thirty minute sound installation premiered in London in 2016 alongside the enlarged modern silver gelatin printsof the portraits. Eleanor Xiniwe is the iconic feature image of the selection. She is dressed splendidly with a look of resilience in her eye. Maxeke is dressed in beads with an imitation cow-skin blouse. She has a look of bemusement on her face. There is a gentleman of Indian orange in the group, dressed well and wearing a head wrap.
Mussai said, “It not only humanises their presence, but firmly locates their story in the contemporary. It opens up a new dialogue about the relationship between archive, sound and the visual in the present.”