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Uniting Cultures With Song

In the Spotlight: Chitungwiza Harmony Singers

For the people of Africa, singing is as basic to the human experience as breathing. Every stage of life, from birth to death, and every activity—be it work or play—is accompanied by song. Thoughts, emotions and moods are sung as often as they are spoken, and singing is a thread that runs through daily life connecting one day to the next.

For the past 19 years, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers of Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa have been sharing that tradition through their unique interpretations of African music, as well as the music of other cultures. “We were formed in 1993 by [current conductor] Israel Dzangare with the idea of indentifying undiscovered talent,” says choir manager Sheila Kahuni.

Dzangare found a rich pool of talented singers in Chitungwiza, a densely populated city about 19 miles south of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Within a year, the choir began entering and winning competitions, and in recent years has distinguished itself in South Africa, where the continent’s best choirs perform and compete.

Choral music claims an important role in Africa’s cultural landscape, uniting black African and white European and American musical traditions. Although the words usually reflect some aspect of African life, the music often shows elements of classical, gospel, jazz or blues harmonies. The Chitungwiza Harmony Singers perform in several languages, including English. The process of learning a new work in another language begins with mastering the melody. “The words are then introduced and finally the polishing of pronunciation,” Kahuni explains.

Two years ago, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers, with the help of local musician Lorna Kelly, borrowed the beautifully poignant melody of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from the opera Nabucco. Kelly substituted words that told of Zimbabweans’ struggles for dignity and freedom, naming their version “Oh Zimbabwe.” A YouTube video has taken their rendition around the world.

Conductor Dzangare has been a driving force in seeing that choral singing remains a mainstay of Zimbabwe’s musical heritage. In 2009, he became the first president of the National Federation for Choral Music in Zimbabwe. “Israel has such a deep passion for this music and is respected as a great teacher,” Kahuni says.

This year, for the first time, the Chitungwiza Harmony Singers will sing in the World Choir Games. “We hope to have around 50 singers, none of whom have been to the U.S. before,” Kahuni says. The choir will compete in The Open Competition in the Folklore category. For choir members, a mix of students and adults of all ages from Chitungwiza and nearby Harare, it will be a chance of a lifetime. “Back home we are a household name,” Kahuni says, “but this event will give members the recognition they truly deserve.”