Diocesan Choir Tour to Israel                                Click here for images of the trip.

In 2012 the Mthatha Anglican Diocesan Choir was invited to attend and perform at the 23rd Zimriya Festival of Choirs in Israel. Much planning and organisation, primarily by Bukelwa Magqashela, culminated in a 50-strong group leaving Mthatha on Sunday 4th August 2013. Fourteen patrons accompanying the tour had left on Saturday 3rd to catch the flight from East London to Johannesburg.
We all met up at O.R.Tambo Airport and after the usual formalities boarded the El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Parts of the nine-hour flight were enlivened by the choir performing some hymns and various traditional folk songs, much to the delight of the cabin crew and the rest of the passengers. After we disembarked in Tel Aviv we were taken by coach to the naval college where we would be spending the next ten days. It was after midnight when we arrived but we were nevertheless given a very warm welcome by the Israeli staff, after which we established ourselves four to a room.
The first day was a rest day, as we recovered from the long trip and started to get used to the meals; the main meal was at midday, with a portion of meat (usually chicken) or fish, accompanied by a choice of rice, pasta, potatoes, or couscous and a selection of salads - sliced tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and grated carrots. The evening meal was the same selection of salads with a range of cottage and cream cheeses and hard boiled eggs, with bread, while breakfast was cereal and then the same selection of salads, egg and cheeses.  We drank water, soda water or sweet black tea with each meal.
On Tuesday we met our guide Virginia (or Verkine in Armenian) and went on a three hour tour round old Akko, or Acre as it used to be known. Acre was conquered by the Crusaders in the 13th century and then by the Mamelukes in the 17th century, and also has defences built to resist Napoleon. Akko is also the holiest city for those of the Ba'hai faith. One of the memorable places we visited was an 18th century Franciscan church dedicated to St John the Baptist, where we sang the Angelus, which was very spiritually uplifting.
We spent most of Thursday rehearsing, then on Friday we were taken by bus to Nazareth, where we visited the place of the Annunciation. There was a formal fountain outside, but inside the associated church, which was magnificent, with elaborate murals and wrought chandeliers, was a humble stone well as the central point. From there we moved on the church dedicated to St Mary, which is an enormous Roman style stone block building designed by an Italian in the 60s. On the wall surrounding it were dozens of mosaics donated by different countries, including Scotland, Wales and South Africa. Outside there was a statue of Mary while inside it was spacious, very sixties in style but done well, and the central area of worship was really quite atmospheric despite the crowds.
From there we drove through hilly, very dry but beautiful countryside to the river Jordan. There is a place that has been formalised as the official place of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, although it is known that that actually took place much further down the Jordan. There a production line to enable people to change into a simple robe and immerse themselves in the water, sometimes in a baptism ceremony. We just went down to the water and got our feet wet, where we were tickled by all the little fish coming up to investigate. The chaplain anointed a number of people with the water and blessed them, and we also all filled bottles with the water.
From there we went to the Church of the Five Loaves and Two Fish, or Church of the Multiplication, which was a much more severe architecture but still very atmospheric, and then walked on to another church on the site of St Peter's Primacy, or the place where Jesus is supposed to have named Peter as the rock on which His church would be built.
The 10th (Saturday) was the Sabbath or Shabat, and we went to Jerusalem. There we visited the Garden of Gethsemane, and the truly enormous church that is built next to what I think must be a tiny remnant of the original garden. Standing outside the church we had a really good view of the city wall, the cemetery outside and the Golden Dome inside. From there we went to the Western or Wailing Wall, where men and women separated to go to the appropriate sections of wall where they were allowed to stuff small scraps of paper carrying messages into the cracks and to touch the wall while praying. We then walked to the Via Dolorosa; starting at Station 5 we visited all the Stations of the Cross, most of which are in a very narrow, slippery stone-paved alleyway lined with stalls of all possible varieties and very steep to walk up - even when carrying very little. The last four stations are in an enormous church/mausoleum in very Eastern style, which was incredibly crowded, although our tour guide said that as it was the Sabbath it was relatively quiet. After Jerusalem we went further south to Jericho, where we saw the mountain that is called the Mount of Temptation and were taken to a tourist gift shop where we stopped for our sandwich lunch.
Next we went on to the Dead Sea.  Here we covered ourselves in the famous black mud (dark grey really) and waited for it to dry before going into the water. It's true that you can't sink; the water is so dense with minerals that you can just float. Once everyone had emerged from the water and cleaned up, we negotiated the shop and set off to travel up the length of Israel to Akko. We arrived back at around 9.15 and shortly afterwards went to supper, which had been laid on for us at a local restaurant. This was also not without its mishaps, as it was a small street-side restaurant (our group completely filled it); the meal of chicken kebabs, dahl, chips and salads was very tasty.
Sunday 11th was the opening day of the Festival, and at 11 a.m. we started our first workshop, which is on Jewish music and run very well by an American expert on the subject called Joshua Jacobson. Most of the members coped very well with a quite intense pace. We had another session in the afternoon and then we rushed back to the college to have a quick supper and change for the opening concert. At 7.15 a coach took us to the Akko Auditorium in all our traditional regalia, and we were shepherded into two rows near the front.
The evening opened with speeches, a brief performance by an Israeli youth choir, more speeches, and then a world premiere performance by the Israeli Vocal ensemble. After that the Russian choir performed, extremely well with a nicely varied programme. They are an all-girl a capella Jewish Youth Choir called Eva. It was then our turn to perform. It started with the young men bounding onto the stage and conducting a pretend stick fight while the rest of us filed on into our places round the back of the stage. They then performed a traditional dance to our singing and (mostly) clapping. After that the women's group took their places and performed a few of the dances we had been practicing. We then lined up as a choir and sang two or three traditional songs, with movements, and then filed off to great applause, cheers and even a few people standing up to applaud.
We then had about an hour long concert from the Israeli Vocal Ensemble with a wide ranging programme stretching from Baroque through to Singing in the Rain. As we left the theatre there were still a lot of very excited people around and there was an impromptu performance of Shosholoza and informal dancing before we finally boarded the coach and came back to sleep.
The next day we were all very tired but still managed to attend the two workshops as scheduled. It is very tiring to sing for six hours a day! Fortunately there is nothing scheduled for the evening so we could get an early night.
Tuesday 12th was the day of our second concert, so apart from our usual two workshops we also had a rehearsal in the afternoon. This was following a communion service at 6.30 a.m. so we were feeling quite tired by the evening. The process of getting dressed up in the alternate traditional dress (plus all the beads etc.) woke everyone up though, and once the coach had taken us to the music conservatory where the concert was to take place we were all ready. Nevertheless we had to sit in the audience for a while as the first half of the evening was presented by the Russian choir from St Petersburg. They were very good, despite the oddity of having about twenty-five women and one man. Their repertoire was mainly Russian and Jewish folk songs.
When our turn came we filed on stage fairly sedately and lined up in normal choir formation. We then also had to have each piece announced, which our chaplain had been nominated to do, and a young man from the Conservatoire volunteered to translate into Jewish. Unfortunately the microphone started playing up, probably due to a failing battery, and kept cutting out.  The pieces themselves, starting with a few hymns and religious songs, went down reasonably well, especially considering the vast majority of the audience was Jewish. The remainder of the pieces were songs about Africa and traditional folk songs, which were extremely well received, especially because of the movements that went with them.
We were very late getting home because the organisers insisted we go back to the Knights' Halls (where the workshops and socialising were taking place) to give a few songs for the people there. We did a couple of songs and then by popular demand did Shosholoza on our way out. We were all very tired by then but very happy it had gone well.
Thursday was the final concert, featuring all the choirs from the various workshops. We had a short rehearsal in the morning, and then in the afternoon a technical rehearsal in the actual hall, where we ran through everything and got all the positioning sorted out. The rest of the day we had free to rest, shop or whatever, and then at 7.30 p.m. we had to be in our workshop room ready for a warm-up.
The first workshop group performed music from South America, competently but not as thrillingly as I would have expected. The second group performed German romantic music - Brahms and Schumann - and again they were competent rather than thrilling. It's difficult music for an amateur group to convey the depth of emotion and an acquired taste for the audience. The third group was us, and the Jewish songs went down very well, especially the first, a fast and dance-like song with klezmer-style clarinet accompaniment called Mizmor LeDavid by Shlomo Karlibach, apparently known as the Dancing Rabbi. The second piece was Sanctus from Mass by Leonard Bernstein with piano and bongoes, and the third was Kedusha by Darius Milhaud, with orchestra. The fourth group performed a series of pieces under the title From Grief to Joy (Pergolesi, Vaughan Williams and Josef Somerjoy) all accompanied by orchestra. The choirs were very much carried by the orchestra, but it was very good concert material.  The final group performed four J.S.Bach chorales, including Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and the Sanctus from the B minor Mass, and was definitely the highlight of the evening. They also had orchestral accompaniment, but it was a small group of strings, oboes, cor anglais and a small organ, and the singers were definitely more than holding their own. This group was conducted by Tim Brown, from England.
Immediately after the concert finished we went back to our rooms to finish packing and change. The chaplain held a short service before we caught the coach and left at about 12.30, reaching Tel Aviv airport at around 2 a.m. We then had a very tiring series of queues to work through, for security, passport control and actual departure. The plane was scheduled to leave at 5.40 a.m. but eventually left at 7 a.m. We landed at O.R.Tambo airport at around quarter to four in the afternoon and after the usual time-consuming procedures caught another coach to return to Mthatha. We travelled through the night, arriving at the cathedral at around 8.30 a.m. to a generous welcome from the group waiting for us.  We were back at the cathedral at 3 p.m. for the welcome home service arranged by the bishop, followed by supper. This marked the end of a memorable journey both physical, musical and spiritual.

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