Nothing goes to the heart of humanity than choral music. When a group of people pour out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony it creates more of an emblem that is needed in the world when so much of the world is at odds with itself to express, in symbolic terms, what it’s like when human beings are in harmony. However, it is one thing for a choir to blend and create a unified sound but it’s a whole other thing when the director imparts the right values that keep the choir going in constant identity.
Today the University Of Namibia (UNAM) will be celebrating 20 years of being under the directorship of its choir conductor, Bonnie Pereko. Although the UNAM choir has been in existence since the university’s establishment, it was until Uncle Bonnie (as famously known by the choir members) joined the choir in 1997.
Coming from the University of Witwatersrand with a Bachelor of Music in Education, Uncle Bonnie says that the journey hasn’t been easy. “When I started this choir I didn’t know anything so I needed to develop and grow myself because you can’t impart what you don’t know. That was a huge challenge and I felt inadequate at times so I had to attend a lot of workshops to get more on voice and choral techniques. I had to do this because I wanted to use these skills to uplift African music,” he narrates.
Uncle Bonnies further discussed how difficult it was to transition the choir. “When I started I had members who loved singing but there were not necessarily strong voices and I couldn’t chase them out because they were already there. So I had to work with what I had but I knew that I had to change, I had to grow and I had to develop my skills as a choir conductor. There were also many choirs that sang so well and I would often wonder if I would ever get there one day, and whether I will ever know how to work with the voices and so forth.
And also to bring in the different voices because a choir is made up of different people with different voices so you need to be able to create a technique that everybody can follow to avoid hearing many different voices,” he said.
Uncle Bonnie says that even though it was intense he has developed and he has grown. Knowing how to work with the voices and make them sound as one is a great achievement in his journey as the choir conductor.
The choir which initially had a membership of 45 people to date registers up to 120 singers annually. However, as the year goes some members end it half way which Uncle Bonnie describe as good because the regular group of 75 – 80 members who remain are enough to make a strong choir. Although the choir also does western music it mainly focuses mainly on the African music beat. “We feature Namibian music as well as other African countries especially South Africa because there’s a lot of influence of South African choral music in Namibia. We have also done music from Zambia, Benin and Kenya. That way we try and maintain our African identity to keep energy and vibrancy in the music.
When I started conducting the choir I felt that we needed to remember where we come from. Our cultures were down trodden, our cultures were not respected and they were treated as though they are not important. Most of the choirs that existed then would sing western music and only African music at the end but I didn’t like it because I felt it was disrespect. Therefore, coming from that background and knowing that this was my role to play, it is very important that I educated the minds of the young people.
I made sure that we do justice to African music not just to the language, because when you sing in a language that you have done justice to you will sing the right words but also do justice to the movements and the different cultures that are reflected and do it properly. That’s what we are known for and that’s why I am doing it that way.”
The UNAM choir describes itself as creative, joyful and youthful and if you have ever attended any of their performances you’ll agree. This unique choir has won several competitions in South Africa which Uncle Bonnie deems as his highlight of the choir as it shows that they can compete internationally. Besides the accolades, the UNAM choir has travelled to the United States, Europe, and has been all over the place in Namibia.
The choir has also helped young choirs grow. “The desire for choral music grew because the young choirs such as the school choirs and youth choirs wanted to emulate the choir and because of that the love for singing started. That has helped me a lot because singers come from different regions which prepare them to come with ideas of what voice and choral techniques,” explained the professional music teacher.
UNAM choir does more than just entertaining; they also do outreach projects by paying visits to the Katutura Visually Impaired School and the Katutura Old Age Home. “Moving forward we want to initiate discussions in the choir on any social issue that is important so that we do not only sing but develop the whole person intellectually as well,” he said.
To date the choir has released for CDs. The first album ‘Aluboke Namibia’ which translates to Praise Namibia was released in 1998 followed by Ti/Gores (My Prayer), Ondjila (The Way or The Road) and Amarula.
In celebration of the 20 years of choral music with Uncle Bonnie, the choir is hosting a concert tonight at the National Theatre starting at 20H00. “We want to do a live recording of our fifth CD so we want to celebrate the songs that have made the choir famous including the new songs,” says Uncle Bonnie.