Thabang Masango had been doing well as a singer in South Africa. He had won large singing competitions and was part of prominent choral group. In 2008, the choral group toured the United States and made a stop in Charlotte along the way.
But Thabang had dreams beyond choral music. At 16 his music teacher, Mr. Mahau, introduced him to opera.
“I was used to singing in chorus but when Mr. Mahau gave me this piece which was long, which had a different language all in all. It was in Italian and it was my first time ever seeing that,” Masango says. “It felt great because in some instances I could feel free while singing on the stage. It calmed me, it made my mind peaceful.”
But opera opportunities are rare in South Africa and instruction is expensive, so Thabang continued singing with the choral group.
In 2010 the tour came to Charlotte again and stopped at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Deloris Chisley helped organize the tour for the church.
“After the 2010 tour we had a conversation with our Senior Minister, Dr. Clifford A. Jones, and said, ‘What if we did more than just have them come here and sing for a month and go back home?’” Chisley says. “What if we selected two of them to come to the U.S. to further their music?”
And that’s just what they did. Today Friendship Missionary Baptist Church pays for Thabang and another member of the choir tour, Bongani Ndhlalane, to study opera at CPCC.
And they’ve excelled. Both have had leads in the school’s productions. Most recently, Thabang starred as Albert in the school’s production of La Traviata.
But it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point.
For Thabang and Bongani CPCC is providing them with a basic musical foundation they didn’t get in South Africa. There were some subtleties they had to learn, like breathing techniques, but they also lacked some skills that most American music teachers deem essential.
“We had to learn to read music without solfege” Bongani says.
“It’s like letters that you put on your music like do-re-me-fa-so,” Thabang explains. “And when you sing you look at those letters and you know your pitch.”
But according to CPCC Opera Director Becky Cook-Carter, learning music by listening has its limits.
“When they first came last year they would have little headphones sticking out of their shirt and they were constantly listening,” Carter says. “But that is not an efficient way of learning and they make a lot of mistakes. And so they don’t wear their headphones anymore.”
And then there were the challenges that came with transitioning from African music to Western music.
In South Africa, Thabang and Bongani organized their music differently, says CPCC Conductor Alan Yamamoto.
“They could not describe to me what scale they use,” he says, “but they do not use the same scale as we use in western music that has 12 half steps in an octave.”
Half steps are the smallest measurement in western music to describe pitch, such as the difference between adjacent white and black keys on a piano.
“Our increments are so big and theirs are slightly smaller,” Yamamoto says. “They could tell me that they have more steps in their octave than we have and that’s pretty common around the world, in Asia and in Africa especially, and even South America.”
Thabang and Bongani have about a year left in their studies. After that, they plan to go to a four year university in the States.
Until then, Becky Cook Carter says Thabang and Bongani still have some learning to do.
“They’re going to be ready soon though. They are going to be big success stories, I promise.”