WORLD-CLASS

A Dream sang to reality

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They wowed the judges and became fan favourites on the prestigious show, ‘America’s Got Talent’ with their exceptional vocal cords. Resulting in the Ndlovu Youth Choir being the first ever South African choir in the history of the show to get through to the semi-final.

Founded as an after school fun activity in 2009, 10 years later it has been signed by the remarkable Record Producer, Media Personality and Businessman who is famous for his harsh, direct and critical comments on the show, America’s Got Talent (AGT), Simon Cowell. BBQ Magazine sat with Ndlovu Youth Choir Composer and Director, Ralf Schmitt. Who is a renowned African Choral Music specialist, with an immense passion for preserving traditional South African music.

He has succeeded in using art to create employment in a remote rural village in the Limpopo Province. The choir serves as a reminder to all that excellence is not limited to background, through hard-work and determination anything is possible.

Schmitt gave detailed insights on their defining moments such as getting through to the semi-finale, as well as some of the challenges they faced such as getting documentation for choir members to travel abroad. The choir first broke onto the International scene when they performed a cover of the Ed Sheeran Track ‘Shape of you” which landed a million hits, this got them noticed and an opportunity to audition for AGT. The choir didn’t look at their journey on the show as a competition but rather an opportunity to perform, proof that intention separates winners from losers. When you do something for the love of it, you do it with love and the positive energy it exudes can’t help but be felt everywhere.

Whose idea was it to form the choir?

It started when we opened our theatre ten years ago, it was a community theatre which was meant to be a gathering for the community, at the time the focus of the care group was on HIV and Aids prevention and awareness, I did the music for the opening and afterwards we looked for a group that could be based at the theatre. Everybody sings and South Africa is a nation of song and so the obvious choice was to start a choir. The choristers initially came from the Orphan and Vulnerable Children’s Program, and also some of the local schools, as we developed we started accepting kids from all over the village so now everyone that is in the choir has come from a local school at some point and some have progressed and are still in the choir as adults, young adults but we take all our choristers from the surrounding areas, mostly within walking distance of the theatre.

How did they develop into a world class choir?

We rehearse twice a week, rehearsals are intense but I mean it’s obviously a lot more than that, there’s choreography, at the moment they are performing and rehearsing almost every day, so it’s just a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication from the production team as well as the choristers.

Once formed and performing was there always an intention to enter AGT?

No there wasn’t, AGT contacted us, they found a video of ours online and asked if we would send some more videos, which we did and before we knew it we were in LA.

AGT journey, training and setting up the trip?

Well once initial contact was made, we had to make a few more audition videos and once they were convinced that we could actually sing it was a huge logistical challenge putting this whole thing together, getting the visas, getting the passports, getting unabridged birth certificates. Remember you’re dealing with kids in a community that very few of them live with both parents and in today’s world you need an unabridged birth certificate, so we literally had to drive a crisscross in the country getting all that stuff. I always say the music of AGT was fantastic but the logistics was an absolute triumph.

Where did the build-up and momentum come from?

I must say we never really built up wanting to go through any stage, we just wanted to give a good account of ourselves throughout the whole thing. The first performance, which was the audition we just wanted to get out there, then hear the guys say to us, “look guys that was lovely but you’re not going through, congratulations for making it this far it was a beautiful, moving performance,” that’s what we expected, but we got through.

And that’s what we expected for each round so to us it was never really about the competition it was just about getting the opportunity to perform and every time we went through it was just another opportunity to perform and nothing more than that, so I think that kept everyone in a good space and that was our thinking, in short that we’re the first choir in the history of the competition to get through to the final.

Getting through the semifinal has been a highlight of yours and members of the choir?

Yes getting through the semi–we were blown away because after the quarter final you know we still had to get millions of votes, my understanding is there’s more votes in America’s Got Talent than there are on the South African National election, we had to get millions of votes to come in sixth or fifth from the quarter finals where we did and the judges saved us to get us through to the semi’s, and at that point we were just like, ‘well, you know we’re going to give a guest appearance at the semi’s, you never know,’ but we had it very much in our minds that we were going home after the semi’s.

In fact the bags were packed, I even told my five year old son daddy is coming home and then we came up with Higher Love and it was a serendipitous piece because we didn’t choose it, South Africa was going through a very tough time that week and when we performed it we realised we had just done something huge, something beyond our performance which is far greater and bigger than our performance. It was a hugely emotional week for us, not only going through but seeing the impact we had on South Africans.

Where to now, I believe Simon Cowell has signed you up?

He has signed us up, we’re working on an album which is going to be released shortly.

How does this affect the lives of the many that are still in school?

Well that’s the challenge that we have, we have got older singers, and the challenge is that the ones that are really old, in their late twenties, we have got to re-skill them so that when they stop singing in the choir, they are able to enter the job market. Then those in their early twenties, late teens will hopefully be doing the bulk of the performing and touring, for those at school to ensure that the money that is generated through this whole process is spent responsibly and that we appoint tutors and uplift their education through the process. We haven’t made any firm decisions yet, and we have only been home for a few weeks and we’re making a great effort to go through this very slowly and meticulously.

How will this affect the lives of the many choristers still at school? Do you have any exciting projects in the future and abroad?

Well we pretty much booked up almost every day between now and when we close for holidays in December. It’s exciting because we’re also going to Germany in December, we’ve got a performance in Berlin, we also have other invitations from all over the world, so it’s working through those and making sure that we manage the whole thing responsibly.

The whole time one has to remember that you’re dealing with singers and young people and it’s not just a professional group of performance machines you’re dealing with, you’re dealing with humans here that in most cases are young and have had a very difficult upbringing, so there’s a lot of exciting enquiries but everything is being dealt with in a responsible manner.

I was at Drakensberg Boys Choir as a young man and studied music in Pretoria and I’ve just always had a love for music, and a love for South African music particularly, and working in a rural community in Limpopo is fantastic, because it takes you to the source of the music, it takes you where the music started and where it comes from and I thoroughly enjoy my time with the choir.

Future plans for the choir?

Well my dream is to make sure that everyone in the world knows about them, and that all their lives are positively impacted for the better, that is what we are working towards and that is what motivates and drives me.

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