This is the fifth in a series of seven dispatches from a visit by students in the Southern Oregon University Honors College to South Africa.

I heard the "music" of South Africa. A breeze in the mountains, the rushing water of an ancient stream, and the wash of waves on the rocky shoreline — the brown savannah with bird squawks and the screaming chatter of monkeys, an infrequent trumpet of a pompous elephant — and the bustling markets full of tourists like me, who were beckoned by barkers to make purchases from among their respective wares.

These were samples of the everyday “music” of the continent, always in the air, sounds I will always hear as I close my eyes and think of South Africa. Listening, I began to hear other melodies and harmonies. These were the songs of the people. Music for entertainment, in praise of Jesus, for rhythm and dance and movement, culturally influenced songs, elaborate productions to preserve history. This “Dispatch” essay is a literary reflection on an auditory experience, the sounds and music of South Africa.

As a former professor of music and music education, I have been trained to listen. While other participants in this year’s Democracy Project trip to South Africa were busy snapping photos of the amazing images all around us, I formed equally strong memories in my mind by listening to the sounds and music of Africa. While there was a melodious cacophony of sounds in nature (the animals, the water, and the wind), I was impressed by the music of the people. Four experiences stand out as the memorable.

The first was in a washroom at the Cape of Good Hope. The subterranean washroom was tiled, giving the cavernous room an echoing acoustic effect. It was in this setting that I heard it: the plaintive sound of a woman’s voice. She was nowhere in sight, but her voice was everywhere. With complete disregard of her surroundings, which were an underground restroom, she was immersed in the spirit of her song. It was a simple, melodically repetitive Christian chorus, Western in tonic-dominant harmonic structure, slow and worshipful, ethereal, calling the listener to “come to Jesus.” Her attitude was that of unabashed faith. Her voice was huge, resonant, focused, and rich in quality. It was simply beautiful.

In Soweto, I experienced my second “Song of South Africa.” Near the home of Winnie Mandela. Our bus stopped, allowing us an opportunity to get out and take photos. As we did, a little girl, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, approached us. She was dressed in her crisp pink dress and glittery shoes. She began singing a rather long and melodically complicated tune, clearly a performance for us. I would later learn that this was the South African national anthem.

Her full, warm soprano voice was much more mature than that of most Western children her age. She sang the tune with accuracy, never changing keys nor sounding uncertain of the melody. She was exceptional, quite happy, and proud of her singing. The beauty of her voice matched her charming personality. In the United States, she could be bound for a music-performance scholarship, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her life in Soweto could offer the same opportunity.

My third “Song of South Africa,” occurred in the markets of Soweto. It was here that we saw a group of street musicians who performed informal tunes of traditional timbres with voices and rhythm. These young men sang in a non-English African language, probably Xhosa. They sang two parts, one group of voices on a bass line that established tonic-sub-dominant-dominant tonality.

One member of the group played the djembe, ,an unpitched drum, usually made from earthen-ware, wood, or metal. Djembe drums are taller than they are wide and may be played with two hands while sitting, or held under one arm and struck with the palm of the other hand. This accompanist played from both positions. The rhythmic pattern established a strong accompaniment for song and dance, including rhythmic cues for various parts of the song.

Part of the music was body rhythms. Singers were clapping, slapping their chests, thighs, knees, or shins in a unison pattern. The group’s movement included synchronized stomping patterns. Though only one instrument was used, along with the body percussion, the texture of the song was not thin. It was lively and engaging; I found it impossible to stand still while listening.

Finally, in a village near Kruger National Park, we witnessed a performance that would best be described as a vocal, historical folk opera. The story of a struggle between two tribes, explained by a program with synopses of musical sections. Singers played the characters. Their costumes were loincloths and simple headpieces. The singing was diatonic, in well-developed parts, and included some phenomenal voices. The most remarkable was an adult male who had a huge, resonant voice, well focused and projected, at times with ear-splitting volume and focus. In the West, he easily could have been trained as a contender for the operatic stage.

Near the conclusion of the performance, the cast surprised the audience by singing, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” The finale was the South African national anthem, a song I was beginning to recognize as familiar and ubiquitous. It is a song of unity, featuring five different languages, that recognizes a desire for harmony in a nation that has a history of racial discord.

It is cliché to say that music is the universal language, but in the words of Yo-Yo Ma, “Music is a part of all peoples, all nationalities. It has its own folk qualities of tone, accompaniment, harmonic progressions, and instruments.” If you listen to their music, you will understand the people, and in understanding the people, you want to listen to their music. Music was my window of insight to South Africa, and one I will never forget.

—Dr. Fredna Grimland is a former professor of music and former Honors Program director at Southern Oregon University.