Silver Fez: Singing the Cape Malay Way

Cape Town’s urban outsiders put on sharp suits and melodic voices to battle it out for the Silver Fez choir trophy.

The melodious sound of male choirs drifts from the derelict buildings and backyards of the notorious Cape Flats suburbs in Cape Town, South Africa. These are some of the most violent suburbs of the world, where the all-male choirs provide an antidote to the sound of gunfire.

The residents of Cape Flats have a long and somewhat difficult history, some of which is dictated by the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 1600s.

Enslaved skilled workers from Indonesia, India and Madagascar were brought over on the Dutch ships, with their cultural influences still making a clear impact on that of the Cape Malay people who were relocated from the colourful Bo-Kaap quarter and to the barren Cape Flats by the apartheid government.

In the spirit of resistance, resisting oppression and generalisations about their communities, groups of men gather in the declining light of this gangland area to rehearse for a unique annual music festival.

This 2009 film is set around Cape Town’s banjo-led male choirs who compete each year in the colourful Silver Fez choral festival.

Three legendary Malay musicians compete for the prestigious awards and a classic story of loyalty and betrayal, wealth and poverty unfolds. We also see the battle of a new choir making its presence felt among the culture’s heavyweights.

We explore the unique Nederlandse song and the aformentioned community from which it originates, illustrating the cultural soul of Cape Town. How do these singing men hang on to their unique culture in a time where globalisation of culture can so easily undermine such an antique song form?

Since Al Jazeera spent time with these men, the choir festival lives on, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the organisation and tourism boards designing entire activations around the event and accompanying others held within the same time period, including the annual street festival.

However, the choirs we meet may have met a different end.