The annual Edinburgh International Festival came to an end last night with a bang – literally, in fact, as explosions of fireworks rained down on the castle, watched by thousands. The night before, however, there were explosions of a different kind, as the Dloko High School Choir gave the last of its vibrant and powerful performances at the Festival Fringe. With foot-stamping and glass-breakingly strong vocals, the choir left an indelible impression on the audience at the Assembly Rooms, and sent them utterly joyous on their way.
The story of the choir is a moving and an inspiring one, not least because the astonishing power of their music belies the poverty from which its members hail. Aged 16-21, the choir members all come from schools in and around the township of Umlazi, outside Durban, South Africa. Apartheid may have been officially dismantled over 25 years ago, but the scars of separation remain deeply embedded, and Umlazi is a case in point in this respect.
Umlazi is the third largest township in South Africa, after Soweto and Tenbisa, and life in the township – a life where crime offers perhaps the most seductive route to any form of success – was captured in Sifiso Mzobe’s award-winning debut novel, Young Blood (Mzobe was himself a speaker at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival). Despite investment in infrastructure and increasingly in education, the township remains incredibly poor, and when the Dloko High School choir made their Edinburgh debut last summer, part of the money raised by Edinburgh charity Iris Initiative to bring them to Scotland was used to buy all the young people basics such as proper shoes.
Last year’s performances brought enough money back to the Umlazi community to fund 7 scholarships to university, and this year the choir has hopes of making an even greater difference on their return. Their determination was palpable, as was their openness, evident in the strength of the relationships they had built with their host families over the course of their stay in the country. Scratch beneath the surface, too, and there were glimpses of the huge effort needed to bring this visit to fruition – the vision, focus and sheer hard work of the people working for and with the charity behind the venture was almost incomprehensible impressive.
Sunday’s final performance was electrifying from start to finish – the sounds challenged and enveloped the audience, lifting them up and inspiring them, too, to believe in the power of the human spirit. The choir have raised funds, and will continue to do so; they are also raising hopes, sharing joy and humanity, and bringing us all together.
If they can make a difference in the world, so can any one of us.