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Bridging Cultures Through Song

Eli Zaelo introduces the Afri-Chin Experience

by Monique Franz

At twenty-one years old, Eli Zaelo waited in line to audition for the Lion King. Every year, the directors held a casting near South Africa’s capital, where Eli was born and raised. The ambitious young woman entered the eight-hour line with the hope she might become the next Nala, a leading role. She prepared her whole life for the opportunity; an opportunity she would not miss.

From age 12, Eli wanted to perform. She and her friend, Kea, were obsessed with the R&B group, Destiny’s Child. The two preteens spent their lunch sessions mimicking the vocals and moves of Beyonce, Kelly, and Michelle.

“We hurried to eat our lunches in five minutes, so we could have the other 25 minutes to sing songs by Destiny’s Child.” Eli explained.

Kea took on the role of the Queen Bee while Eli held down the parts of Kelly and Michelle. Eli didn’t mind singing the parts of the other two group members, because in her mind, “the two equaled one Beyonce.”

The lunch jam sessions sparked the beginning of Eli’s life as a songstress. She later attended the Los Angeles Academy (now the Los Angeles College of Music), where she majored in Vocal Performance. When she returned home to South Africa after her time in the U.S., she kept her eyes open for the next opportunity, the Lion King.

After auditioning, Eli knew she would indeed become the next Nala, but what she could not see was her destiny to bridge two cultures through the power of music and the arts.

In 2015, Eli moved to Hong Kong to fulfill her contract to perform Disney’s Festival of the Lion King. She marveled at how distant and indifferent the people seemed.

“I was surprised that you could be around so many people and still feel alone.”

In Pretoria, her home country, anyone could (and would) strike up a conversation in public spaces, and everyone would join in. That was not the case in Hong Kong. She felt like an outsider. Those feelings became exasperated when locals stole pictures of her on their smartphones or curiously touched her hair without permission. But even with the challenges, Eli felt a connection to the Chinese, and marveled at the many elite spaces she found herself in.

“I would ask myself, why me? What specific mission am I on?” she explained.

Eli wanted to invite others into those spaces. She recognized that her voice had been a platform from which she would not only learn about the richness of other cultures, but she could also share the magnificence of her own. Her diaspora journey became a mission of cultural exchange.

This ignited her latest venture, the Afri-Chin Experience, an expo merging the art, music, and food of South Africa and China.

According to Eli, “A big part of the reason I was able to create this concept is because I have been in spaces where I saw other people’s visions come to life. There is something empowering about exposure that ignites a desire to use our own creativity in our unique ways to contribute positively to the world around us.”

The Afri-Chin Experience takes place on August 5th at the Barnyard Theatre in Pretoria, integrating various cultures through entertainment, food, games, and guest speakers. By creating such an exciting space, Eli shows that through cultural exposure, we will come to know, love, and live harmoniously with one another.

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