FIRSTLY, I MUST apologise for how long this has taken me to write up. Attempting to condense all that made this trip as wonderful as it was is quite a daunting task, but here goes...
The project began when the Just Festival and the Edinburgh University Chaplaincy helped bring the Soweto Melodic Voices over to Edinburgh to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. The choir were a huge hit, selling out night after night and enjoying unanimous praise from the press. The demand for a CD by attendees was huge, but the choir had never made one.
Over the months following their Edinburgh performances, an idea began to take shape between the Edinburgh University Chaplain, Harriet Harris; John Grieve and Daniel Hunter (both of which worked with the choir for their festival performances). The idea was to not only travel to Soweto and record an album with the choir, but to buy and donate all the recording equipment to do so, as well as creating a syllabus to teach a crash course in sound engineering. No mean feat.
I joined the project in late January 2014. I was approached by John, who knew about my sound engineering background and about Red Sky Records, to help deliver the project. Maybe I'm just a cynic, but for a long time I was pretty sceptical about it actually going ahead and reserved excitement, but hit the ground running nonetheless. I later found out that everyone involved was sceptical that this would actually happen, pretty much right up to sitting on the plane! Despite that, after 2 months of long days working out curriculums, buying equipment, liaising and meetings, John, Daniel and I were puffing up our inflatable pillows and en route to South Africa.
Arriving late at night after a 15 hour journey, we had time for about 3 hours sleep before crawling out of bed and driving to the SABC television centre in Johannesburg. We were to do a LIVE TV interview on South Africa’s most popular breakfast news show, SABC News, which we only found out about just before leaving for SA. Suffice to say I was more than a little nervous as we weren’t given any questions beforehand and my sleep deprived brain was working at half capacity at best, but nonetheless we got through it ok and it was great publicity for the choir and project. You can view the full interview here.
The schedule was to hold 2 hour classes Monday to Friday, with recording sessions afterwards... It was to be an intense week for all involved! Our biggest challenge when writing the curriculum was how to condense a degree's worth of material into 5 days, without any prior knowledge and without bombarding participants with unnecessary information. To do this, we structured the lessons into bite-sized chunks for each stage in the process, so we had microphones, setting up and getting the most out of artists on the Monday, multi-track recording on the Tuesday, mixing levels and EQ on Wednesday, further mixing and final mastering on Thursday and setting up a record label and the music industry on the Friday! This course was not for the faint hearted but what became immediately clear was just how hard working and committed the members of the choir and the other participants were, and they tackled the challenge head on.
As for recording, I really was stunned by just how together the choir were. After setting up, we fired though 6 songs back to back, with practically each take being a keeper. My initial concerns for our tight recording schedule dissipated and I was left to enjoy the music.
The 3 of us stayed in a beautiful guest house roughly 20 minute’s drive from our recording location in Soweto. We were very well looked after by 3 choir members; Sparks, Sizwe and Chippa and the 6 of us had the whole guest house to ourselves for the majority of our stay. We had such a blast living together and the 3 of us became very close friends with our new housemates.
Despite such a hectic work schedule, we did fit in some 'off' time, whereby we visited Nelson Mandela's house, saw a Kaizer Chiefs match at the FNB stadium and had many a night in playing Fifa and drinking beer with the guys.
Aside from the graduation ceremony, I think my fondest memory of the trip was on the Friday, the last day of lessons. After the lesson on record labels, I announced that I would like to sign SMV to Red Sky Records. I was so touched when the room erupted in cheers and applause, signing them seemed to mean just as much to the choir as it did to me and I even got a couple of hugs! It really was a big moment for me and this record company and I can't wait to see where we can go together.
I've tried to keep this as brief as possible, there isn't enough room on this site to faithfully document all that this project was and even trying to convey the experience in words alone is futile. A huge thank you to Harriet Harris and all those at the chaplaincy, Edinburgh University, Neria Madikane, Daniel Hunter, Sizwe, Sparks, Chippa, Salva, Chris Hutchings and of course all the choir members and sound engineering participants. Of course, a special thanks goes to John Grieve who brought me in on this project, without whom I would have none of these amazing memories. You all made this the success it was and all I can say is how honoured I feel to be a part of this unique and special project and how I can't wait to see you all again!