When it comes to clap & tap gospel I’m a full throttle snob. After all I grew up in the church that created the genre. I was surrounded by the music my whole life – if not at church (where I spent a considerable part of my childhood), then at home. My family has an abundance of great singers (God decided to play a joke on me😔). The radio and cassette player also contributed a great deal. Then there were the occasional (once in two months or so) stage-offs between the multitude of local choirs and some from across the country. Me ears can pick out a good choir the second they belch out the first sound – even if it’s just a cough.
The best choir by far in this genre is Jerusalema E Ncha C.W.J. I make no bones about this – they are even better than choirs I have not heard! In the distant second position would be Lejwe La Motheo and followed closely in third by Bararosi Ba Morena. Maybe to succumb to a little Bantustanism I will place the choir from my labour concentration camp Balatedi Ba Morena in the top five.
I have listened to Jerusalema my whole life and until March 2012 when my laptop was stolen I had almost all their albums and a DVD. I have also been lucky enough to have seen them live on stage two times. The most recent being about 5 years ago when they took Balatedi Ba Morena to the cleaners, the dry cleaners plus the laundry after wiping the floor squeaky clean with them.
What Makes Jerusalema So Great?
“Teng ho tla tlisoa hlonepho, khanya ea lichaba.” ~ 251 Sioneng
Firstly, they have talented singers. The late founder Joseph Motaung had a tenor that pierces through your soul. Their perennial lead singer, Lucky Nkagisang, will have you longing for places you’ve never heard of with her authoritative alto. There is also a lady on soprano who usually leads – she always manages to pull at my heartstrings. Their bass section is the best I’ve heard, the way they ground the songs is remarkable. Their tenor section is only rivalled by that of Barorisi (trust me Bararosi pack heat in this department). The soprano section never misses the high notes – in fact this is where one can always spot a fake Jerusalema, not many can hit those high sharp notes so perfectly. And with Mme Lucky leading it, the alto section is yet to meet its match! But let’s face it – talented singers are a staple diet in the black community. The special ones are the few of us who can’t hold a note.
The second factor that makes Jerusalema special is their organisation and discipline. Of all the choirs I’ve seen – they’re the most disciplined. They have the discipline of a scathamiya group with sjambok-wielding leader. Everybody plays their allocated role. No one/section is trying to outdo the other. On stage you can see the leadership of Mme Lucky who is also the conductor. You will find the whole choir keeping an eye on her to take their cues. She beautifully adjusts the volume and tempo of the songs with just a slight movement of her hands. Their movement on stage, be it a side to side sway or a little step, (they don’t dance much) is always coordinated to the T. Their clapping is exquisite. This is an area where most choirs falter but Jerusalema has it covered. Their clapping is also coordinated – like the marching of a brass band. The palms strike at the same time and with equal weight. They use the clapping to control the pace and rhythm of the song, it is always audible but never so loud that it drowns out the voices. For instance with the slow paced sombre songs, the clapping is just a slow rhythmic clapping of finger tips. With the quick paced songs, the clapping is exciting and the hand clock bell is sometimes brought in and given to skilled hands to create a joyous atmosphere to carry the song. This discipline and organisation really sets them apart.
Thirdly, their choice of songs and delivery thereof is sublime. Like most choirs they pick their songs mostly from the hymnals used in the St John’s apostolic church; Lifela TsaSione and Hosanna. Between the two there are at least 600 hymns. And each hymn has at least three different tunes. That makes almost 2000 choices. Add to this the many popular choruses and other hymns from the Methodist and catholic hymnals. It is thus clear that making the right choice is no easy task. Jerusalema lightens its task by going for the traditional hymns in the St John church.
Here they go for the hymns laden with meaning, the deeply spiritual, the kind that the old women sing ko merapelong. Hymns like ‘Dihwayi’, ‘Oa Nkalosa’ and ‘Ntsamaise Mmoloki’. They also do the everyday hymns used for church rituals like ‘Se Teng Sediba’ and ‘Seo Re Se Filoeng’. However they don’t shy away from the popular choruses as they ably demonstrate with ‘So Hamba Ngeqola Yo Mlilo’ (the clock work on this song is superb!), ‘Re Leboha Manyeloi’ and ‘Leso Sandla’. Jerusalema also in most instances stick to the traditional tunes of the hymns.
Now one might ask what is so special about singing the same old hymns that everybody knows in the same old way? Well firstly, the traditional way is in most cases the best way. One of the most enjoyable things (for me the best part) about church is the music – choirs like Jerusalema enable us to take this home with us. And if one is feeling nostalgic, popping in a Jerusalema CD will take you right to church. The cathartic value of this cannot be overstated. Secondly, it’s all in the delivery. As with most common things, what sets one apart is execution. For instance, everyone can cut hair, but it is the one who can do so exceptionally that has the right to set up shop and call himself a barber. Jerusalema is that barber! The combination of talent, organisation and discipline I mention above gives them advantage and right to demand compensation for singing the same old hymns in the same old way.
Also in their delivery they demonstrate a level of respect for the hymns they sing. In most cases they will sing all verses of the hymn. One must understand that hymns are like poems and they tell a particular story, the story line weaves through the first verse to the last – to skip one is to tell an incomplete story.
For example the hymn ‘Kenang Bohle’ starts off with a reminder that there is a feast agwaan and you must enter as you have been invited; the second verse warns that it’s getting late and you must hurry; the third informs of how the guests are swarming in and the house is reaching capacity and the fourth asks why you’re so sad outside when there’s so much joy inside? Don’t be shy, you have been invited and there’s space for you, the fifth verse kindly advises; the sixth reminds that the feast is in your honour therefore you’re expected; with the seventh pleading for haste as the doors are about to close. All these verses have the chorus “Kena, kena! Baka se sa le teng” (come in while there is still opportunity). In the last verse, which announces the closure of the feast, the chorus says with finality, “Ruri, ruri! Baka se fetile” (verily the moment has passed).
It is thus clear to see why it is important to sing the whole hymn. Another reason is that each person has their favourite verse in a hymn, the one that they feel talks to them or their situation directly – therefore a verse skipped may leave some feeling cheated. Jerusalema also shows respect in the temperament in which they tackle each hymn. For instance they wouldn’t dare deliver “Bodibeng Jwa Mahlomola” buoyantly. They deliver each hymn in its right mood – which shows understanding of the message of the hymn.
Their inspired choice of a signature song, ‘Jerusalema E Mocha’, also deserves a remark. Every brand must have its Streetwise 2. Lejwe La Motheo has ‘Ka Hlahlathela Felleng’ and Barorisi Ba Morena has ‘Dichaba’. That Jerusalema has as its signature song a hymn with a similar title to the choir’s name has left many a choir no choice but to not even attempt sing that hymn. The song is synonymous with the choir and the choir with it. They have delivered it majestically twice on tape; highly meditative and emotionally charged in their 1997 album Tsebetso Ya Moya as an ode to the late founder Joseph Motaung and again in 1999 in Ke Nqalo E Kgethehileng in a more upbeat mood.
Lastly, what makes Jerusalema so great is what I believe to be their close association and/or involvement with the church. They intimated as much in one of their DVDs. I believe that this grounds them and makes their music much more authentic. This authenticity is what makes them able to deliver the songs so greatly, it is reflected in their choice of hymns and delivery thereof, and their skill with the clock bell and the clapping. A true mo-St John knows that clapping in church isn’t just a haphazard striking of palms but it has a certain esoteric rhythm and pulse to it. A newbie in church can always be spotted by the way they clap. The organisation and discipline of the choir also can be traced to the church which has a clear and rigid organisational structure and governed by a strict code of discipline. Of course one cannot deny that anyone genuinely committed to providing such an authentic performance can study the church but I stand fast in my belief that some things cannot be faked. For instance when they perform the St John’s apostolic church’s melodic chant ‘Amen’ one cannot but be convinced that a significant portion of them are indeed members of the church. Many choirs do not have this authenticity when delivering this chant. There’s always that something missing. Either it is too clean or callously done. With Jerusalema it is always perfect. And always delivered at the perfect moment. Mopostola will know that the chant is not just thrown in haphazardly. It is sung after the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the service, to close off significant rituals and at the end of highly charged songs to sort of calm the emotions. Jerusalema always aptly use it for the later reason.
All of this and the fact that they use the church’s buildings (on their ‘Tlong Baheso’ and ‘Sekhathaleng’ album covers there’s an image of the headquarters’ chapel in Motlollo), and brass band in their videos, pay homage to the church’s founder Mme Christinah Nku and also had a familiar church leader in one of their DVDs (I don’t believe any of this to be a marketing gimmick) has me convinced that they are rooted in the St John’s apostolic church and this is the reason I’m able to connect with them in ways I can’t with some other choirs.
In Defence Of Jerusalema
“Rea mo rapella Jerusalema, re hlomohile lipelo. Re lla ka meokgo, ke khutsana, motse o motle oa heso!” ~ 418 Sioneng
Of course as with any great phenomena, there are many pretenders to the throne. Some do so maliciously, some maybe out of reverence. Whatever their reasons, there are many choirs (recorded and unrecorded) that go by the name ‘Jerusalema E Ncha’. In most cases they are styled as the great Jerusalema, sing the same songs and even have their own version of Mme Lucky. In short; they pass themselves off as the great Jerusalema we all know and love. This is the worst form of piracy. It has negative financial and reputational consequences for the choir. Even my prudent self I have been duped into buying some CD of Jerusalema E Ncha only to get home and at first listen my discerning ears cry foul. What ticks my snobby ears off the most though is the lack of talent and imagination of these choirs. They take something so beautiful and ruin it. Imitation is only flattery if done well; otherwise it is just pure philistinism. For this crime alone these wanna-be choirs evoke my ire. I can invoke my socialist bearings to forgive them for copyright infringement and such, but I have zero capacity to forgive a crime against art.
Lest we be fooled by these wanna-be’s again, it best that we get two things straight:
It is possible though that this list is not exhaustive; possibly it only includes albums that have been digitised. It’s a great misfortune that so little information is available on this great choir.
By Way Of Conclusion
“Mohau oa Morena Jesu, o be le rona kaofela. Le lerato la Molimo, le matsheliso a Moea.” ~240 Sioneng
Jerusalema stands firm as the greatest choir to date to ever do it. It is an institution we ought to guard jealously. A century from now there should still be a choir Jerusalema E Ncha CWJ – as great as ever! There’s still over a thousand hymns to sing, reimagine and record. New hymns are being written everyday. There will be new hymns written to mourn Afrophobia, to celebrate economic freedom, to be thankful for the end of misery. We need a great choir to archive all of these for posterity.
Let me conclude by paraphrasing the words of the great Jackson Mthembu: “don’t buy fake Jerusalema don’t buy!”
Ka dlala. We should part ways thus:
“Ho rorisoe ‘rato le na
Le re kopantseng hammoho;
Le ha re ka arohana
Pelo tsona li teane.” ~ 142 Sioneng
Titima my kind! Tsatsi la dikela.