Joy of singing: The collective’s Rosa Choir, a crowd favourite, has more than 30 members. Coach Tersia Harley says the songs are chosen to promote unity and that nothing brings people together better than music Picture: SUPPLIED
Joy of singing: The collective’s Rosa Choir, a crowd favourite, has more than 30 members. Coach Tersia Harley says the songs are chosen to promote unity and that nothing brings people together better than music Picture: SUPPLIED

How best to promote art – in all its different forms — and diversity, open-mindedness and social cohesion? The Cape Cultural Collective has found there’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but exposing people to things they’ve never seen before is a great start.

At their last event in May, the delighted audience at the Slave Church Museum on Long Street had hurt their hands applauding performance poets and an array of musicians — from South African Music Award winner Lionel Bastos on acoustic guitar to the Khoi Khonnexion, a trio that employed traditional Khoi mouth bows to great effect. They’d smacked their skin for the BuyaAfrika drummers from Langa, all fire and echoes. So when the belly dancing started, they were totally won over.

Mish Hendricks shimmered in below the pulpit, adorned with a parchment declaring "So Sê die Here". Holding flaming hand candles in each palm, tummy twitching and winking, she easily took control of the space. And when she distributed sequin-adorned sashes, there was no shortage of audience members keen to join in.

"Our events are much more than just concerts," says Kay Jaffer, who with her husband Mansoor has been with the Cape Cultural Collective almost since its inception in 2007.

The collective works closely with cultural groups from across the city, especially in areas on the Cape Flats.

"We want to show people that culture is not homogenous; that no one can say, ‘My culture is all South African culture’," Jaffer says.

So its events have showcased the Brazilian martial art capoeira, Flamenco, riel, ballroom dancing and comedy. The collective is not prescriptive: it recognises that some people may like violin string quartets, and others, Engelbert Humperdinck. As Jaffer says, there are "10,000 Whitney Houston wannabes" on the Cape Flats.

The collective started informally, meeting through a project initiated by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. It held impromptu performances in "noisy Irish pub" Catú in the city centre, near Greenmarket Square, then moved to the District Six Museum. It was a "nonracial, nonsexist, intergenerational cultural movement promoting social activism and change and reflecting on history and memory", its website states.

"We’re a group of volunteers, dedicated to bringing people together from all walks of life, across religious, geographic and cultural barriers to share art and culture. And we provide a stage for people to share their work with audiences," Jaffer says.

There is amazing talent in diverse areas of the Cape, but no one ever sees it unless opportunities are provided. "I sometimes think we’re more divided than ever," Jaffer says, "despite 23 years of democracy, you don’t get the sense that people are coming together."

The collective’s Rosa Choir is a clear crowd favourite, belting out feel-good classics. It is no stiff, formal choir, although bass and soprano sections have their place. They are accompanied by a percussion band, and audience participation is key.

For the final song, big-eyed members of the Rosa Junior Choir joined in, the lights went down, and all performed using torch lights for added effect.

The Rosa Choir has more than 30 members, from 14 years old to over 60. There are schoolchildren, academics, a chiropractor, a journalist and a lawyer. They practise on Saturdays, although attendance can be fluid: the aim is enjoyment.

Chadwin Nel, 16, of Manenberg who spiced up a piece in the repertoire with a rap chant, says the choir is fun, and the lyrics often inspiring. "They help to free your imagination."

The songs they perform, says Rosa choir coach Tersia Harley, who teaches music at St Cyprians, are chosen to promote unity. "Nothing brings people together better than music."

They play around with the choir concept, so that it’s more than just singing, it is important that it’s enjoyable. Songs are translated into English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, and members contribute ideas and suggestions. "We work as a team," says percussion member Mbulelo Mapila from Langa.

Actress and singer Thami Baba says it is a humbling experience. She likes it that the collective develops people’s other talents too: she is often the master of ceremonies and another choir member makes posters.

A diverse collective, the collective has clocked up milestones over the years. It released a poetry anthology in 2011 called At Truth’s Edge; some of its poets performed in France in 2013 and it held four major celebratory concerts for the University of the Western Cape’s 50th anniversary in 2010.

The collective’s 10th birthday celebrations will include an Artscape show that tells its journey, an arts and culture summit and an anniversary exhibition.

Performance poet Khadija Tracy Heeger has been with the collective almost from inception, attracted by its ability to cross the "huge rifts" between different groups in the city. "For me it became like a home; I felt comfortable there," she says.

Heeger had benefited from the exposure – the Paris performance is on her CV, and she performed at the Grahamstown festival and in the US.

Others who have worked with the collective include Jill Levenberg from the soapie Suidooster; SakhileMoleshe of Goldfish and jazz singer Monique Hellenberg.

The collective is committed to showcasing new voices. One newcomer in May was Topollo "TP" Mokhati, an ebullient slam poetry champion who began writing poems when he was 12. He was talent-spotted by steering committee member June Knight at an open mic session and invited to perform.

Another newcomer, a musical quartet called Azanian Aesthetics employs indigenous instruments, such as the umrhube, and shares the desire to "imagine and reimagine spaces in which Africans can meet and share".

While the collective doesn’t promote any politics other than inclusivity, issues are often raised by performers — from LGBT concerns to corruption and poor leadership.

The next event is on June 30. See Cape Cultural Collective.

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