‘It sunk in a week after the video had gone viral’ - the Ndlovu Youth Choir on their success
Ndlovu Youth Choir. (Photo: ROWYN LOMBARD)
Beautiful harmonies fill the rehearsal room as waves of
brightly coloured costumes swoosh from side to side in a riot of sound and
dance. The melody is familiar it’s British pop star Ed Sheeran’s megahit Shape
of You. But when these choristers start
to sing, they deliver a surprising isiZulu rendition of the hit. The effect is
as magical and goose-bump-inducing in real life as it is on the video that went
viral of the choir performing the hit track.
The video of the Ndlovu Youth Choir, accompanied by
Grammy-winning South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, was shared far and wide
and today, as the singers strut their stuff at the Ndlovu Miracle Theatre in
Elandsdoorn in Limpopo, it’s clear why it was such a hit.
Wouter posted the video on social media and it wasn’t long
before it had reached more than two million views.
“It sunk in a week after the video had gone viral,” says
bubbly lead vocalist Thulisile Masanabo (21).
When I go to the store people say, ‘You don’t look like the person who’s out
there, and sings and dances’. What’s even more remarkable is that they started
performing professionally only in 2017.
The Ed Sheeran remake was the brainchild of Ralf Schmitt
(36), the conductor who formed the choir nine years ago. They covered local
songs but Ralf decided they should try something new and he liked the Caribbean
flavour of Shape of You.
“It has that marimba
sound and I immediately thought it’s a piece that would lend itself to the
choir,” he says.
Ralf got in touch with the publishers of the song and they
gave him the go-ahead for the choir to do a remake. He came up with a
few new lines and brainstormed
them with choir manager and one of its members, Sandile Majola (24). It fell to
choir member Tabang Sekele (26) to come up with dance moves to accompany the
Ralf also asked Wouter to collaborate on the song
because he thought
the choir and flute combination
would be a match made in heaven.
Eventually they all got working and filmed the video in Maropeng.
“It was challenging
because I had to find the right words to use and the right words to fit with
the rhythm of the song and the whole flow,” Sandile says.
“I used some kasi slang to make it catchy so young people
could relate to it, especially in the townships.”
Wouter posted the video on Facebook and within
a week it
had reached a million views. When
it went viral, Ralf wondered how to convey to the young stars just what an
effect they were having when many didn’t have data or even phones.
“I copied the
comments and put them on paper, which we printed out for them. I told them this
is what the rest of the world thinks of you and what you created.”
For singers like Thulisile, receiving this kind of
validation has been a massive confidence boost. She remembers being bullied for
being too skinny and for the way she spoke as she was growing up, so singing in
front of people was tough for her. But once she joined the choir, all this
“I used to think
maybe my voice isn’t right or my voice is too squeaky or just not normal. I
started singing in the back row because I lacked self-esteem,” she recalls.
“Looking back to six years ago, I wouldn’t have had the strength to stand in
front of the camera and just sing.”
her first time trying out for the choir.
“I was on my way from school and they were having auditions.
They would just come out and call
everyone in to audition – even if you couldn’t sing, just to
take a chance.
“The best part of being in the choir is being able to do
what you love without being judged,” she says.
Sitting behind the keyboard, Ralf calls out directions in
isiZulu or “Zulungu”, as many of his choristers call it, referring to his
“white man’s” attempts at speaking isiZulu. Ralf, who has a distinguished
background singing in the Drakensberg Boys Choir and Kearsney College Choir,
drives the two hours from Johannesburg twice a week to teach the kids in this
small rural town.
“The challenge of doing it out here and seeing the reward is
a hell of a kick,” he says.
“There’s a lot more to South Africa than Sandton, Rosebank
and Hyde Park. You need to see
what’s out there and you’ve got to try to make a contribution where you can.”
The kids are as committed as Ralf and for two hours, twice a
week, 40 young people ranging in age from 16 to their early twenties gather to
rehearse. Ralf believes it’s important to keep all the members as involved as
possible, which is why so many were involved in the Shape of You remake.
“Although I did the
musical arrangement, the translation and the whole process is a group
collaboration with all these kids,” he says.
“What we’ve tried to do is create employment as the project grows.”
They’re hoping to
start a training choir soon, headed by Thulisile, to
train up-and-coming members of
the choir. The group has travelled to the Netherlands, Germany and Scotland to
perform for donors who’ve sponsored previous projects run by the Ndlovu Care Group,
founded in 1994
by Dutch physician Dr
Hugo Templeman and
his wife, Liesje, and they’ve
been invited back to Germany next year to take part in an African festival.
Since the release of the video bookings have been streaming
in and Ralf hopes this will mean great things for the kids’ financial future.
For Ralf, the
biggest reward isn’t the recognition the singers have earned but the
change in their confidence levels.
“When you start treating these youngsters like artists and
musicians and not just as poor kids from a charity programme, when
you say, ‘Actually you’re professional, you’re someone, you’re something’,
you see how they proudly raise their chests. That’s quite something.”