From The Shadows Of Apartheid, Three Singers Bring Their Voices To The States This week, American listeners will get introduction to the Bala Brothers, a sibling trio who broke color barriers and became three of the best-known voices in South Africa.
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From The Shadows Of Apartheid, Three Singers Bring Their Voices To The States

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From The Shadows Of Apartheid, Three Singers Bring Their Voices To The States

From The Shadows Of Apartheid, Three Singers Bring Their Voices To The States

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This week, PBS viewers will get an American introduction to three of the best-known voices in South Africa.


BALA BROTHERS: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: The Bala Brothers - Zwai, Loyiso and Phelo. Zwai Bala became the first black member of the Drakensburg Boys Choir. That was six years before apartheid ended. Before long, the brothers became national stars, performing R&B, kwaito, gospel, opera. They sang in English, Afrikaans and their native Xhosa. Now the Bala Brothers are featured in a live performance that's broadcast on PBS stations and out on CD this week. The Bala Brothers join us from the studios of the BBC in Johannesburg.

Zwai Bala, thanks very much.

ZWAI BALA: Thank you very much, hello.

SIMON: Loyiso Bala, thank you.

LOYISO BALA: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: And, Phelo, thanks very much for being with us.

PHELO BALA: Thank you very much.

SIMON: And first, how is my pronunciation?

Z. BALA: Not too bad at all. We've heard much worse than that, otherwise, that passes.

SIMON: That passes, good, thank you.


SIMON: There are a couple of traditional church hymns that are on this CD. Let's listen to a little bit of your rendition of "Going Home."


L. BALA: (Singing) Going home, going home, I am going home. Quiet light, some still day. I'm just going home.

SIMON: Boy, that's beautiful. And whose voice do we hear?

P. BALA: That's Loyiso there. Our voice sound so much, you know, like, alike that at times we get confused at who is singing what.


SIMON: We get a little confused, too, but it's wonderful. That's terrific. That's part of the special power, too, of brothers singing.

P. BALA: Yeah.

SIMON: As we noted, you broke the color barrier in the renowned Drakensburg Boys Choir of South Africa. You went first, Zwai, and you were 12 years old.

Z. BALA: Yeah, absolutely. At the time, I didn't realize just how intense it was really going to be. But it's a funny thing in the sense that, you know, I was young, and the kids that I was amongst, all white. A lot of them gave me a lot of grief, and I think I came to work it out that, you know, they don't know much. They just grew up being told that black is just wrong, black is not good enough, black is this and that, you know? So, you know, as they were discovering more and more things about me, you know, they would have the odd cliches like, oh, wow, your blood is red (laughter). It's like, wow, you think (laughter)?

SIMON: Oh, my word.

Z. BALA: And also, you know, coming from the Eastern Cape, which is the home of great political leaders in our country, by the time I was 10 years old, I knew a lot about the armed struggle of the ANC, and the underground, and the political aspects of the movement and what was going on in the country. So by the time I went there at 12, I knew so much, much more than even these kids' parents did. So I was quite all right. And I stood it through and I saw it through. And I'm happy that, you know, I did do that, because when my dad was on his deathbed my very first year - my first term, in fact - I went back home and I said, no, I want to leave. It's horrible. The boys are, you know, they're horrible to me and (unintelligible). And my dad said, no, you've got to stay because if you stay, then your brother can get to go, then ultimately more black boys can get to go there. Now if you look at the choir, about 50 percent of the school is black, so I guess it was a good decision to make at the time.


BALA BROTHERS AND DRAKENSBERG CHOIR: (Singing) Where, oh where, oh where, oh where...

SIMON: The Drakensberg Choir is featured in one of the most moving songs on this CD.


DRAKENSBERG CHOIR: (Singing) Where, oh where, oh where, oh where...

SIMON: Let's here from "Something Inside So Strong."


DRAKENSBERG CHOIR: (Singing) The higher you build your barrier, the taller I become. The further you take my rights away, the faster I will run. You can deny me. You can decide to turn your face away. No matter, 'cause there's something inside so strong.

SIMON: This is a famous anti-apartheid anthem.

Z. BALA: Yeah.

SIMON: You sang at Nelson Mandela's - at the concert in Cape Town after Nelson Mandela died. And what did that mean for you?

P. BALA: Well, for me, as the born free, they'll call it...


P. BALA: ...I think I have it the easiest.

SIMON: For you as the what?

Z. BALA: Phelo.

P. BALA: This is Phelo.


Z. BALA: Born free.

SIMON: You were the born free?


P. BALA: Yeah, the born free. That's everything was good. And I was like, OK then, I can come now.

L. BALA: You freaked me out now.


P. BALA: So, still, the effect the former president had was - were lost for a very long time because a lot of things became possible, also for our group, as well, to be able to sing for all sorts of people - different kinds of people that we never thought - probably our parents never thought we'd ever sing for. So, yeah, it was quite an honor to sing for his memorial.

SIMON: We want to play an excerpt from another song, and despite my newfound fluency in (clicking) Xhosa...

P. BALA: Xhosa.

L. BALA: Perfect.

SIMON: ...Perhaps I'll rely on you to help me pronounce the name of this wonderful song that begins with an M.

L. BALA: Masibuyelane.

SIMON: That's it, yes.


SIMON: Well, let's hear a little bit, if we could, please.


BALA BROTHERS: (Singing in Xhosa).

SIMON: It's a beautiful song.

L. BALA: Thank you.

SIMON: Tell us about it, please.

L. BALA: Yeah, that's a song that Zwai and I wrote together, you know. We thought, OK, wow, you know, it sounds like it should be an Italian song. But Xhosa, actually, if you take the clicks away, it probably sounds Italian, too. So we could actually probably write beautiful, classical Xhosa songs, and that's how the song was born.

SIMON: You sing in (clicking) Xhosa, and in English and also Afrikaans. Now, a lot of black South Africans rejected Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor. Why do you sing in it now?

Z. BALA: You cannot run away from it. It forms an integral part of our - not only of our history, but even our, like, our society right now. Why we decided at one point to do an Afrikaans album was because when we were at the Drakensberg Boys Choir, the only two languages spoken - just English and Afrikaans. And in the mornings, as it was a Christian school, we used to have assembly and we used to sing hymns.


BALA BROTHERS: (Singing in Afrikaans).

Z. BALA: So when - one day to be English hymns and the next day it's Afrikaans hymns, but the Afrikaans hymns are so beautiful. And, actually, when we launched Bala Brothers, we seemed to attract a lot of the Afrikaans audience. So we thought, let's do an album that is entirely dedicated to the Afrikaans people.

SIMON: You all, I gather, have pretty solid solo careers, right?

Z. BALA: Yeah, yeah, in a way.


L. BALA: Yeah, we do. You know, Zwai started a group. And then after that, I sort of came in. So when we actually found out - when we heard Phelo sing - Phelo I think at the time was only 14 - we didn't know that Phelo could sing at all, you know. And he actually had to do a demo tape for us...

SIMON: Oh, oh, you are brothers, aren't you?


L. BALA: And when we heard him sing, we're like, wow, you know, this could be something special. And so when we sang, you know, like, we thought, OK, wow, let's sing together. And this was during a tour that we were doing as the Bala Family. And the response that we got and just how wonderful it felt for us, we just knew that we were on to something special. Yeah, so here we are.

SIMON: The Bala Brothers: Zwai, Loyiso and Phelo Bala. Their self-titled CD is out this week. Gentlemen, just a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck.

L. BALA: Thank you so much.

P. BALA: Thank you.

Z. BALA: Thank you so much, anytime.

L. BALA: All the best to you, too.

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