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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

MUSINGS # 32 (article first published : 2007-03-18)

There are few occasions when I feel so passionate about a topic that words I put down on paper are paltry in comparison to the emotions I’m undergoing – but as I write this piece I’m giving a new addition to my CD collection a whirl in the player, and I have to say I’m pretty well blown away by the trio in question, South Africa’s very own Bala Brothers (Zwai, Loyiso and Phelo, in descending order of ages ranging from 31 to 15) and their album titled B3, featuring a collection of classical pieces mixed in with some famous Broadway songs, which showcases their superb diversity of range to perfection.

This trio has managed to scoop no less than five SAMAs (South African Music Awards) as well as a Golden Horn and a Metro FM Award, and now comes this debut album with competent crossover appeal, opening as it does with the Tim Rice & Elton John composition, Circle of Life (from The Lion King); followed by an extremely pleasant cover of the Norah Jones composition Don’t Know Why; going on to include several excellent classical pieces, including a favourite of mine, Nella Fantasia, that marvellous Ennio Morricone composition from the superb film The Mission; the entrancing Caro Mio Ben (where the brothers say it becomes immediately apparent they were taught by the same teacher during their different eras of study with The Drakensberg Boys’ Choir, which some folk refer to as South Africa’s Singing Ambassadors).

There’s also an original work called Sylvia, composed by none less than an uncle of President Thabo Mbeki’s, namely MM Moerane; a most competent rendition of Somebody to Love (better known by Freddie Mercury & Queen); and ending with a highly entertaining arrangement of South Africa’s National Anthem, where the more usual choral traditions are rendered somewhat more interesting by the addition of a funky, jazzy kind of vibe: quite the most entertaining version our anthem I’ve heard to date, in fact!

And, of course, what contemporary popera album these days would be complete without the beautiful You Raise Me Up? – best known, perhaps, by Josh Groban (also Westlife), though few people realise it was initially recorded, after a performance of the song at the funeral of footballer George Best, by a truly fantastic group of musicians known as Secret Garden. The music was composed by Norwegian, Rolf Lovland, and the words come from the pen of the extremely talented Brendan Graham. But I have to say that, for me, the outstanding track on B3 is the Walt Disney classic, Beauty and The Beast (the more famous version being that by Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson), featuring Judith Sephuma, a singer I admire enormously, who it’s told accomplished the task in one take, despite the fact she was heavily pregnant at the time!

The Balas have been referred to as “the closest thing South Africa has to a musical royal family”, and appearances under their belt to date have included high-class functions such as The Miss SA Pageant and the 75th birthday celebration for “The Arch” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu), no less. Then came an invitation from Johan Stemmet to appear on his musical TV programme Noot vir Noot, and that was when South Africans really started to take note of the talented threesome – so much so that when they were featured artists at the recent Kaapse Jol concert, the response was incredible, with fans screaming in enthusiasm from the moment they took to the stage!

And hot off the press comes the news now that they’ve been selected as the opening act for the visiting quartet, Il Divo, for the Johannesburg leg of their SA tour (though sadly, once again, Durban is not on the itinerary, as with other prestigious singers to visit our shores recently, and which is also the case with the imminent arrival of Sir Cliff Richard).

Il Divo (who will no doubt perform in those trademark Armani suits which offset their virile visages to stellar effect) may indeed be the major attraction, as the hunky continental cutie-pies have already put out three enormously successful albums since they first hit the musical scene (thanks to the efforts of Simon Cowell, the controversial Idols judge who sent out scouts to tour every corner of the world until he found a group he would call the contemporary equivalent of The Three Tenors).

However, I’m sticking my neck out with this prediction: having listened to B3 at least a dozen times within the first 48 hours of purchase, I am of the opinion they’ll not be received as minor supporting stars by any means. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the enormously appealing CLEF(T) in the chin of the handsome Spaniard named Carlos may well take second place to the velvety-voiced charms of this treble treat (particularly if they, too, are clad in those crisp white shirts and stylish ties which accompany their designer suits).

It seems the charismatic older brother, Zwai, has occasioned quite a bit of comment on his sense of style, not only when he took part in our local television version of the show Strictly Come Dancing (where he did extremely well) but for one particular outfit by a designer named Darren who had him clad in a swanky black suit with pink pinstripes, accompanied by a matching waistcoat and tie, when he attended – along with many Hollywood A-listers – the 75th birthday celebration of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

It was when Zwai, at the age of 12, won the Golden Voice competition which secured him a place at the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir in Northern KwaZulu-Natal that he was able to pave the way for other black boys to join that prestigious establishment, with younger brother Loyiso following in his footsteps in 1990 and then Phelo completing the hat-trick by winning his place there in 2003.

In fact, the baby Bala brother held the title of Deputy Headboy there, and now attends St Stithians in Randburg, which is where his brothers both matriculated. It was when young Phelo sang the aria Nessun Dorma on a two-track CD he’d made with a technician from the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir that his older brothers were blown away by the maturity in his voice, and when Phelo had a six-week holiday they managed to plan B3 and record it in less than two months.

This magnificent album, released in October 2006, resides now in one of my special green-boxed collections of my most favourite CDs, alongside not only those of Il Divo but also the highly-rated Amici Forever (a group that includes a striking black soprano from Durban by the name of Tsakane Valentine), Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis, the currently highly popular UK tenor Russell Watson, the female group Celtic Woman (joined very recently by the talented young New Zealander, Hayley Westenra) and others.

I see a shining future ahead for The Bala Brothers. Good luck to this extremely talented and very likeable trio, say I, and in the words of the immortal group ABBA, “Thanks for the Music”! - Bev Pulé




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