Meet the Soprano of TswanOpera, Chedza Pansiri
Award-winning Chedza Pansiri, otherwise known as the ‘Soprano of Tswanopera – a kind of portmanteau that combines the words Tswana and Opera – inherited her gentle singing voice from both her parents, one that can calm even the fussiest of babies.
Voice Woman sits with the vivacious vocalist after her captivating performance, which received a thunderous ovation during The African Women Leadership Academy Fundraiser at Cresta Lodge last Friday. The award-winning opera singer and Lecturer, who recently got promoted and now teaches Education History and Policy, is passionate about the creative and performing arts industry as well charity.
Born and raised in Phikwe, the 42-year-old, who has wowed audiences locally and aboard, said it was only in Standard 4 that she noticed that she possessed a special ability. “Coming from a family of gifted singers, I didn’t think much of my talent until I began receiving attention from teachers like Mma Seloi, who was our music teacher at Boswelakgomo Primary School, and it nearly went to my head.
Whenever my brother and I missed rehearsals, she’d come to my house to beg my parents to allow us to sing at school.
After several of those visits to my home, I realised that we were indeed exceptional,” she says with a smile, adding that up to that point, they had only sung in church, the Old Apostle Church.
“We moreover sang together as a family at home and recorded ourselves.”
In 1997, while a Form 2 student at Makhubu Junior Secondary School, Pansiri was once again spotted by her teacher, Gape Motswaledi, “That’s when I started singing as a soloist and with big choirs like Botswana Police Crime Prevention Choir.
Mr Motswaledi insisted on using my voice to train other school choirs.
We’d visit primary schools to train young children then eventually I’d join adult choirs.
Although, my mother had always been super supportive, she grew overprotective.
For instance, if I had to travel, she’d only release me the very last day, which meant I’d only have little time to rehearse with the rest of the choir; mostly on the road,” Pansiri explained.
A stroke of good fortune for the young Pansiri as that experience trained her vocal cords to deliver great power and control that saw her swap theology for music once at tertiary.
“In 2001, during first year at University of Botswana, I sang with Gaborone Youth Singers but Motswaledi wanted me to join KTM Choir. I turned him down this time around. My relationship with the youth choir was short-lived, though, at the same time I wasn’t really enjoying my theology course; it was totally the opposite of what I had imagined it to be. The entire curriculum challenged my faith, so I transferred to Molepolole College of Education to study music. I was forced into a languages course based on my high school results, but I was laser-focused on pursuing music; a very depressing phase. However, by God’s grace, I approached Mr Molwane about my ordeal and he fought for me to study music. Having fallen behind with my lessons, I struggled to catch up in the first year when I discovered that music was mathematics; both a science and an art (Music is structured using measures and equal beats, and this division of time is comparable to the divisions used in mathematics),” she reflected, and chuckled at the memory.
Despite the complexity of the course, the struggling student began to ace her exams after another Good Samaritan came to her rescue.
“I recall Mr Raditladi would patiently teach me the structure and elements of music, using sticks like I was an elementary class pupil, so I went from getting 30% mark to 70%. I was ecstatic because now what I knew in theory, I could apply practically. I was also doing well in Religious Education, taking best student awards. Once again, I would also travel to perform across the country. I joined the Botswana Teachers Union choir before I became a teacher. In 2008, I went to teach at Radikolo Junior in Mochudi as a music teacher-student, but was confronted with yet another challenge; the syllabus was worlds apart from what I had just trained to teach. I’d call Mr Raditladi for assistance. More learning ensued, such that whenever other teachers went for lunch, I’d practise, imitating world-renowned opera singer on YouTube. By the time I went to further my education in UKZN, I was shocked to find out that I’d learnt high school material; standards were much higher, and the curriculum superior,” she states emphatically.
In 2009, while attending the Maruapula Music Camp with her students, the passionate Pansiri met a vocal teacher and classical singers’ facilitator at the camp, the maestro, Tsietsi Mofokeng.
“After hearing me sing, he asked me whether I have been trained vocally. The maestro was astounded that I had never received any formal training. I told him I only sang in church and community choirs. We performed a South African lullaby, ‘Thula Thula’ together and when we parted, he gave me the most decorated American opera singer, Renee Flemming’s CD and instructed me to study her technique till he returned to the country the following year. I immersed myself in Fleming’s music and when I got bored with her, I began to explore other artists,” she says, flashing her Colgate smile.
Four years later, an opportunity for further training presented itself and Pansiri contacted her former Lecturer, Mr Raditladi, who was now the Principal Education Officer.
“Both an exhilarating and intense experience. We had to audition before we picked courses. The judges named me ‘an asset to the university’! Yet again I was asked if I’d been vocally trained before, whether I was a local or foreigner… (chuckles). I didn’t start out confident because South Africans can sing, gosh! Mr Mkhwanazi reassured me that I was good enough, and I later paid him R250 to teach me to sharpen ‘that ring’ in my voice; it engages your diaphragm, tummy, butt, shoulders, etc. It took only one session for me to get it and I was comfortable.That’s how I ended up with a BA in Music and Perfomances,” she says proudly.
Now self-assured, Pansiri went on to win awards, beginning as a first-year student when she was named among the top 5 best Italian opera singers.
She was mentored by and worked with the late composer of the Shaka Zulu opera in South Africa, reverred composer and pianist Phelelani Mnomiya.
“He had a choir of 80, and another of 8, called HOME; we travelled widely across Msanzi, rubbing shoulders with South African celebrities, including performing at Senzo Meyiwa’s funeral at Moses Mabhida Stadium. We performed Ziyankomo, an opera about the Zulu nation, which inspired me to found the TswanOpera.”
The opera singer also boasts sharing the stage with American Hip Hop star, Eve, and locally, Shanti Lo and Ndingo Johwa.
“When God has something for you, no one can change that. I ended up lecturing at Oodi College upon my return home; that’s when ‘Daughter of Tradition was born in 2018’. I work with out-of-school youth, some of them former students, to teach them how to be good performers. The dream is to build Botswana Indigenous Orchestra, how to craft theatrical costumes and all things performance arts,” she concludes gleefully.