A Magical Musical Weekend With Voices of Namibia

This is a long overdue post about the visit that our choir hosted from a Namibian choir, Voices of Namibia (VON). They traveled from Windhoek, Namibia, to compete in the World Choir Games, which were held this year in Cincinnati. They toured the U.S. as part of their trip and one of their stops was with our choir (Pennsylvania Academy of Performing Arts). Members of our choir volunteered to provide housing to members of VON and I signed up for two women in their 30s, figuring we’d probably have the most in common. We were all nervous and excited to meet them. We did research about cultural norms in Namibia and did our best to prepare. Sherpa wanted to stock the kitchen with ingredients to make Namibian food. (For the record, we didn’t – I figured it would be like a Namibian serving me chicken fingers and french fries).

Well when they arrived they had been on the road for about 2 weeks and already won 2 silver medals at the World Choir Games. They had just traveled on the bus from Detroit and when I arrived at the church where we rehearse to meet them, they were piled on the lawn in various degrees of sleep, because they had arrived early. After everyone from our choir showed up, the magic began. They were amazing people. We all got to know each other and sang together. They all spoke English, although their everyday language is Afrikaans. Here’s a mind-blowing video of all of the basses singing one of the VON songs after a few minutes of tutorial:

The two women who stayed with us were amazing. We had a long night chatting for hours about everything – food, family, traditions, fun, friends, music.

The next day, VON took a tour of Philadelphia. That night, they held a free public concert that was packed. You can find videos of many of their performances from their U.S. tour on YouTube (for example, Alleluja).

But the crowning jewel experience, for me, was our joint performance of Elob Misa, a traditional Namibian song in a language whose name I would have never guessed the spelling of without much Googling: KhoeKhoegowab, pronounced kway-kway-koh-VAH. It’s one of the language that has clicks. During our get-to-know-you rehearsal, their African-language director taught us the voice parts, the lyrics, the clicks, and — oh, yes — the dance moves that are part of this song. We were all paralyzed by the difficulty of learning the clicks, but fortunately the VON alto that was sitting next to me was a native speaker of KhoeKhoegowab and tried her very best to tutor me. I can hardly explain how difficult it was. There were 4 different clicks we had to learn, and if you use the wrong one you’re saying a completely different word. Check out this video by a couple of Namibians explaining the clicks.

They surprised us after the rehearsal by asking us to sing the song without them. And we did it, albeit with nowhere near the booming confidence of VON, but they LOVED it. They took pictures and videos and whooped and hollered at us. Of course the Namibia men snuck around toward the back and filled in the clicks, which are a crucial part of the song because there’s a part where the song is whispering and clicking only.

Well, Sherpa got a video of our joint performance of the song during their concert. If you look for the bright white face in the front row, that’s me.

We all spent the weekend trying to click correctly and I still can barely get it. But we had an unforgettable weekend bonding with and connecting to people from across the globe through music. Our two ladies, Lydia and Helena, will forever be friends. I hope to get to Namibia and visit them. I’m so grateful I could be part of it!



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