Ever heard of the World Choir Games? If not, then you are missing out, because it is the world’s largest global choral festival and competition. Its motto is "Singing together brings nations together" with the aim of bringing unity through the arts.

The focus of the Games is on participation above winning, and it aims to inspire people to "experience the strength of interaction, challenging personality and community equally by singing together".

The Games is held every 2 years around the world. In 2016 it was held in Riga, Latvia and this year it was held in Tshwane (Pretoria) in South Africa. One fellow that was determined not to miss out on this golden opportunity was Odwa Mvunge (29). He lives in Ashton, a little town in the Cape Winelands.

Odwa was born in Ashton, but completed his schooling in the Eastern Cape. When in high school, he joined the church choir and participated in eisteddfods as a soloist. He enjoyed it so much he decided to enrol for a degree in Music Education at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.

“That was hard,” says this larger than life man with infectious enthusiasm. “I had no formal music training so had to start from scratch, whereas most of my classmates had studied music and music theory at school.”

He joined the university choir which meant touring the country and abroad, performing in front of large audiences and getting to see the world.

“I realised what a privilege this was and how it broadened my vision, so I was determined to provide this same experience for others.” After graduating, Odwa moved back to his granny’s house in Ashton, and started teaching Arts and Culture at the local school. There was little interest in a choir at the school so, undaunted, Odwa took his ideas and passion into the broader community, forming a choir made up of farmworkers children in the local township in 2012.

“It was hard,” he confesses. “It’s seen as ‘not cool’ to sing in a choir, and there was not much support from the parents. But Odwa persisted, holding choir camps on the weekends where teens could come together, sing and have fun.

Soon the Ashton Youth Choir was being invited to participate in local competitions and festivals, and even participated in the ‘Suid-Ooster’ Arts Festival in Cape Town where they came second overall.

“Last year, I saw on Facebook that the World Choir Games was being hosted in South Africa in 2018,” continues Odwa. “I saw this as an ideal opportunity to bring the world to the choir, but I had to raise R90 000 to get there!” As the teens’ parents are mostly contract farmworkers, there was no spare cash to fund a choir tour. So Odwa turned to the farming community: “Some of the wine farms contributed cash; others invited us to perform at their functions to raise awareness; we made a CD of our songs which we sold to raise funds.”

Eventually everything came together and the 16 choir members, Odwa and a driver, piled into 2 minibuses and undertook the arduous 18 hour journey to Tshwane. “It was a very emotional experience for these young people,” explains Odwa. “For most it was their first journey outside the Robertson Valley, the first time they got to sleep in their own beds, and have a tv in their rooms!” Their supporters in Ashton had roped in their families up country to do the catering and even that was a first: “To be able to dish up your own food, and then help yourself to seconds! That was just an amazing experience for them.”

“Everyone was enthusiastic until we arrived at the venue where we were to perform. Suddenly the kids looked around and saw the other choirs with their fancy uniforms and strange accents and they felt really intimidated. But I just told them: ‘Enjoy yourselves, give your best and be yourself,’ and they did, and we won a gold medal!”

While in Tshwane the choir visited places of interest such as Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, and also performed at a church service along with one of the overall winners, the Aeolian Choir from Oakwood University, Alabama.

This experience has forever changed the lives of every member of this choir. They have returned to Ashton and have been practicing with renewed determination and vigour. Their next target? The World Choir Games in 2020 in Antwerp, Belgium! But for this audacious project, a huge amount of money has to be collected. Odwa, although realistic, is determined to try his best to get his choir to Europe. “A choir is not just about singing,” he says, “it is about creating relationships with others and learning to work as a team. That is a life skill I am determined to teach.”

To find out more about the Ashton Youth Choir, contact Odwa Mvunge on +27 (81) 555-3789 or ‘like’ them on Facebook.

- Julia Moore