I don’t think I will ever enjoy singing as much as I did today. So far, our time at Tembisa has been full of talent, music, and warm-hearted kids who are thrilled to engage with us. As soon as my feet hit the dusty pavement, on our first day, I was swept away into a crowd of embraces and greetings. The kids at the Moses Molelekwa Performing Arts Center were buzzing with curiosity and the willingness to make connections with us.
Out of the sea of friends I made, one stands out. I met this kid named Thabang, and let me tell you he could make absolutely anyone and everyone laugh. A tall and rather lanky kid, he was hard to miss in a crowd. Honestly, my classmates and I were in conversation with him every chance we got. I will miss him and his overuse of, “guys!” very much.
It was during our last performance that I felt the most connected with our newfound companions. As our voices blended together as one, into a harmonious smoothie of sound and rhythm, I scanned the half circle that we had formed and felt a bolt of inspiration and empowerment. There was a silent energy that continued to build, all the way up to the very last song of our performance. Thulani, the choir director, informed us that it was a song that he himself composed. It was a tribute to the thousands of youth that marched through the streets of Soweto in June of 1976, as a means of protesting an apartheid law which enforced the use of the Afrikaans language in schools across South Africa. Towards the end of the song, we began to chant fiercely and march out into the crowd, pulling them into our performance. The power of our voices, and the energy that was vibrating all around us, was enough to make the room quake. In that moment, I think I understood why music is so important to me. It conveys emotions that words simply cannot generate. It brings people together. It helps build connections and paints beautiful memories that can be awakened with the simplest melody.
I talked to Thulani after the show, and he told me how he always closes his eyes when he listens to people perform. He explained to me that it showed him each layer to the full mural that was the song. I responded by saying that I understood him, and that his explanation was something that I had understood my whole life but never been able to explain. Along with the souvenirs I’ve bought and memories that I’ve collected, I hope to bring Thulani’s spirit and passion home with me.
We spent our last day in Tembisa performing with our new friends. We also watched them perform scenes, songs, and dances. I had a chance to meet up with my new friends Zanele, Ellen, Zinhle, Junior, Princess, and many others. I really enjoyed it when they tried to teach me how to speak Zulu; it was incredible. It was amazing how inviting everyone was to a group of students they didn’t know. I met so many people that came up to me with open arms and open hearts. We took pictures together to save the memories.
For the final performance, we walked in one by one. As we started singing, the crowd seemed moved by our expressions and power as a group. We owe Thulani a big thanks for being an amazing teacher. He rearranged several of our songs and taught us new songs in only three days. Our final performance moved our hearts and our bodies by the intensity and meaning of the songs. Most of our songs were chants or calls used in the fight against apartheid. When we got to our finale song, it felt like the whole room just came alive. People began dancing and smiling. We were full of joy, smiling and tearing up, knowing it was our final song together.
Our goodbyes were hard. I think it is amazing that in only three days we built such strong friendships that will last a lifetime. I hope to see them all again someday. I still can’t believe how inviting the kids we met were. In the United States, we are used to being reserved, or observing each other, until we feel safe around new people. Here they want to learn about your culture and teach you about their culture. It’s something you don’t see all the time and we take it for granted. They seem proud of their history. Sometimes I feel ashamed of our past.
One of my new friends that I made at Tembisa said, “I will miss you.” This warmed my heart. I am proud that we had made so many connections across the world and learned that in many ways they are just like us.
During my time at Tembisa, I learned that I can love a person within ten minutes of meeting them. This turned out to be the case for all the Tembisa students that we sang with. The third day we spent at Tembisa was the day of the performance; the day that would end with excruciating and bittersweet goodbyes. I think I’ve been saying the phrase, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” quite a lot on this trip, but our performance was more than fun, was more than exciting, to a point that I can’t even explain.
The day started out with our huge bus pulling up to the now familiar group of dusty buildings and benches, greeted by our new friends in the courtyard. One boy, Sabelo said good morning by blowing everyone away with his insane beatboxing. As we slowly filed in around him, some people were just staring at him in awe, some were bouncing their heads to the beat, and some were strangely dancing. They did not even care what everyone else thought because we all felt so close and felt so much love that there was no judgment. While I have a special place in my heart for the Tembisa kids, I formed a friendship with one girl in particular. Her name meant happiness. Whenever I saw her, or made eye contact across the singing circle with her, she would break into a HUGE smile, making me smile, and we would both start dancing and laughing. I admit this caused Thulani to yell, “No dancing!” once or twice but I must say, Happiness created happiness.
After one of the best shows I’ve ever performed in, all the singers gathered around a man who was giving a speech and during that entire time, me and Happiness just hugged each other. Even though it was just a hug, I knew I had made a friend for life. She was the person who made me realize that I can love a person less than ten minutes after meeting them.
While I should probably be talking about how the performance went, instead I’m going to talk about the magic maker that created the show, Thulani. Thulani is literally one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever met. For some reason, Thulani is the kind of person who has a ridiculous amount of technique for putting things together and making everything that he creates sound stunning. I remember the first day that we walked into his studio and we were greeted by him and all the kids. Thulani asked us to sing for him so he could hear what we had prepared. I thought we did a pretty good job up until Thulani made us listen to the kids sing the song he had prepared, and my mouth fell open. To be honest, I was flushed with a little bit of embarrassment because I could tell he had worked his magic on those students but it also made me 1000 times more excited to learn as much as I could from him. Thulani isn’t the kind of person who gets respect by yelling at kids until they’re scared of him; he gets it from showing them what they can do if they work with him. He makes everything sound so good that even if you absolutely hate singing, you want to get up, clap your hands, sway your hips, and sing at the top of your lungs. With Thulani’s gift, the day of the performance I wasn’t scared or embarrassed whatsoever because I knew that our work with this short, excited, incredible man had prepared us to present our best.