Composer and musician Neo Muyanga initiates Project Lentswe, a long-term choir and community project commissioned and hosted by Sharjah Art Foundation.
At Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting 2018: Active Forms, composer and musician Neo Muyanga led the musical project Naham – Songs of light and weight, which consisted of a week-long choir workshop and choral performance. The Arabic word ‘naham’ refers to a song leader on a pearling ship, whose role is to uplift spirits and provide comfort as the divers trawl the sea in search of pearls. Drawing on the naham’s songs and the pearl divers’ stories of toil and struggle, Muyanga’s large-scale performance project aimed to provide a platform for hidden voices to openly express their stories of hope, fear and longing through song in any language.
With no prerequisite for participation, the Naham project involved over sixty locally based singers who encompassed a wide range of ages, backgrounds, abilities and styles. Songs and personal stories were shared by various members of the group as well as Muyanga himself. Memorable to both participants and audiences, the public performance of Naham, directed by Muyanga, featured songs of freedom, resistance and love in Arabic, English, Malayalam, Portuguese, Swahili, Tamil and Urdu, collectively assembled and learned during the workshop sessions.
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, Naham was the culmination of over a year of collaboration between the foundation and Muyanga, beginning with conversations in late 2016 and developed through site visits to Sharjah and research on the history and contemporary cultures within the United Arab Emirates. In the wake of Naham, and building on its themes and purpose, Muyanga is continuing his collaboration with the foundation and surrounding community of Sharjah through the new, and this time more long-term, Project Lentswe.
With lentswe literally meaning ‘a voice’ in Sesotho—a Southern Bantu language of the Sotho-Tswana group, spoken primarily in South Africa— this community choir and operetta project for all ages welcomes singers, vocalists, instrumentalists and sound makers as well as storytellers, costume and set designers, people who are interested in movement, performance or the aesthetics of performance, and all others who wish to take part.
As was true for Naham, the exchange of cultures, voices and songs from around the world is fundamental to Project Lentswe. Manifested through dedicated quarterly workshops, regular choir practice, periodic performances in Sharjah and an interactive online platform, this exchange reflects the conditions of the project’s home—the United Arab Emirates—and the project’s goal to explore the complexities of our shared histories, multilingual environment and multicultural realities. The intention is for the choir to exist for many years to come, with members floating in and out. Muyanga’s hope is that Project Lentswe will go beyond the vocal ensemble and series of workshops and performances to become a living and breathing instrument of public record. Although it is located in Sharjah, the choir will be empowered to ‘speak’ in the song modes and traditions of ‘other worlds’, creating and documenting its own history through time while also allowing an underlying archaeology of Sharjah to surface.
Project Lentswe will begin with Muyanga leading a week-long workshop from Sunday to Friday, 15–20 December 2019, 7:00-9:00 pm. A short performance by the new choir will bookend the first week of the project on Saturday, 21 December 2019, 3:00-4:00 pm, in Gallery 6 coutryard, Al Mureijah Square. After the first workshop, professional vocalists who are alumni of the University of Cape Town Opera School will work as instructors with Muyanga and the ensemble.
Muyanga will conduct in-person and virtual workshops throughout the year in collaboration with a range of highly skilled specialists who are versed in different musical, vocal and cultural traditions. During these workshops, participants will learn to sing well-known covers and other songs shared by instructors and participants alike.
Attendance at workshops as well as an ongoing commitment to the choir practice hosted by Sharjah Art Foundation will be vital to the life and perpetuity of Project Lentswe. Regular practice will also allow members to achieve new levels of proficiency and musicality.
In addition to the music studied in the workshops, the choir will be challenged to learn original material composed especially for Project Lentswe. A different resident composer will be named each year.
Project Lentswe will also exist virtually through a specialised digital platform, its structure and design developed according to the project’s bases of exchange, accessibility and telling of histories. Public and interactive, the platform’s purpose is twofold: on the one hand, to host the project’s textual and media materials, including videos of the choir in special workshop and performance sessions, and on the other hand, to support virtual interaction in real time, making live spectatorship as well as online instruction possible. The platform’s two-way interactivity will have the capacity to invite users to imagine themselves as part of Project Lentswe, and furthermore, to generate new content in response.
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Attendance is free and open to the public.