The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with the tune, but I did not know the words any better than they did. “Blue Moon… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da dah.” They kept singing it over and over.

My friends in New York had been afraid I’d encounter Zulus ever since they’d seen the newspaper headline: “African National Congress and Zulus Clash in Downtown Johannesburg.” The story had been dreadful enough, but the accompanying photo had shocked everyone, even me, although I did not want to admit it. Yet who could ignore a picture of dead bodies on a sidewalk in what looked like an upscale shopping area, especially since one of them had a spear sticking out of him? “Don’t go to South Africa,” was the consensus expressed as my phone rang off the hook the day before I was to leave. But despite my friends’ guidance and my own unspoken fears, I went anyway.

The unrest leading up to the first fully democratic election in April 1994 made it necessary for the multi-ethnic clergy group with whom I was traveling to pay extra attention to security issues. We were especially cognizant of this when we arrived at the Methodist Church in the center of Johannesburg and found policemen removing concertina wire near the front door where the ANC/Zulu clash that had made those headlines had taken place. We were there to attend voter registration training and a peace rally.

That this had already been the site of extreme violence was unnerving, but I tried to be brave as prospective voters came in to learn how to cast their ballot for the first time. It must have been even scarier for them, knowing that there were those willing to do bodily harm to disrupt their right to vote.

Between the training and the peace rally, we paused for dinner from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant down the street. Over the shared meal, a few representatives of local factions joined us for more intimate conversations about the upcoming election. Afterwards, we moved to a spacious auditorium on the church grounds for the rally, which took the form of a concert, featuring a musical group from each political faction or tribal entity. Although the participants were deeply committed to conflicting visions for the future of their country, in music, they found commonality, and for a moment, a sense of much needed peace.  

Then an announcement was made that the next group, the largest of the evening, represented the Zulus. I squirmed in my seat as flashes of that spear photo coupled with clips from the old movie Shaka Zulu raced through my brain. Were we about to be attacked by wild men whose accomplices had, just a few days ago, killed their political opponents outside this very building? That’s how the media had portrayed the Zulus in their vivid and shocking headline news article that had made it all the way to New York. So what else could I expect?

I hunkered down, hoping to become invisible, and braced myself for what might happen. Simultaneously, the doors at the rear of the auditorium opened, and the Zulus entered… singing.

What? That was not the war cry of a primitive people about to wreak havoc upon their audience. It was… it was… barbershop music. As the chorus of almost one hundred tuxedo clad barbershop singers made their way down the aisles to the stage, the melodious tones of complex harmony began to fill all the empty places, both in the room and in all of us. It was enchanting.

So, when a few of the Zulu crooners, who we met over coffee after the rally, offered to give a bunch of us a ride back to the retreat center in their van, we were delighted to accept their kindness.

“Blue Moon…” Even though none of us knew the rest of the words, the harmony was unforgettable.

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