I recently had the dubious pleasure of judging auditions for a Gospel singing competition. I say 'dubious' for two reasons: 1. it's heart-breaking to say no to people who are giving their all, and b) what are we doing asking people to out-Gospel each other in the first place?
I don't know if I would've said much about this episode in my life, apart from the fact that the 2-day auditions were held in Umlazi, a massive sub-city outside Durban, and that I was exposed to a huge slice of humanity that I usually don't get to encounter, being a white suburbanite and all.
About 300 entrants came through the doors, and one by one they stood in front of myself, Deborah Fraser (a South African singing legend and shoe-fetishist) and Siya, a well-known DJ from Durban's Gagasi FM. Out of my depth? You bet! The other two judges weren't too sure who I was or what I was doing there, and neither did I.
A quick briefing didn't prepare me for the depth of talent I was to encounter over those 2 days. I had to be ruthless, apparently, but each entrant was better than the last, and I had the privilege of hearing some of the most powerful singing voices I've ever heard. Choirs, trio's, duo's, solo singers, keyboardists... KwaZulu-Natal (my 'province') has it all, and I was dumbfounded.
We managed to choose two finalists (picture below), a young guy named Sakhile who has possibly the loudest voice my guitar amp-addled ears have ever heard, and a trio of young ladies who called themselves the Divas Of God and who possessed the honeyed tone of the Andrews Sisters. It was incredibly difficult; you could see the hope people arrived with, and the crushing disappointment when our judges' lack of consensus meant 'no'.
Two things struck me: South Africa is alive with musical talent. We've always known that, but we tend to forget. These spine-tingling voices seem to emerge from the bush and disappear back into anonymity, and no-one is any the wiser. The other thing: talent competitions suck, especially the ones where people of faith are involved. Their faith isn't the thing in question, it's not on the table, and yet they are encouraged to compete with others of like-minded faith for decidedly earthly rewards. I know I'm being a bit 'bah humbug', but there's just something tacky about the whole idea. Pop Idols For Jesus.
Well, I'll try not to do that again in a hurry. I'm not thick-skinned enough. I was impressed by everybody, gobsmacked by more than a few, and mindblown by at least 25 or so entrants. South Africa is crawling with music, and I had a front-row seat.