When you realize all the accolades that the Soweto Gospel Choir has garnered — including two successive Grammys and appearances with a host of big-time celebrities — you might wonder how a gospel choir could rise to such prominence in a relatively short time. The group has been together only since 2002. But when witnessing a Soweto Gospel Choir performance, it’s apparent that every single voice is amazing and each member is a star in his or her own right. No wonder, then, that an evening with the Soweto Gospel Choir is a magnificent nebula of sight and sound. Yes, they’re great singers. But they’re also great dancers, actors, musicians, and orators.*
The choir, performing for the University Concert and Lecture Series at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is beginning its 2010 North American tour, with 26 of their total of 52 members, and was fresh off a performance at UNC-Chapel Hill. Culled from choirs throughout South Africa, the Soweto Gospel Choir celebrates gospel music, culture, and life in South Africa; and — indeed, the world — through a varied repertoire of music and dance.
Soweto is a name familiar from the 1976 uprising that was a turning point in the apartheid struggle in South Africa. The choir is certainly a celebration of that upheaval, and the joy of liberation is utterly apparent in every note this choir sings.Only those most familiar with South African culture and language will recognize all the songs, and the American selections they have chosen are so powerfully and artfully arranged that they almost sound like new works. But that’s a good thing.
You have never heard “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sung like this. “This Little Light of Mine” has never shown so brightly. Even the standard “Mbube,” better known to Americans as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” takes on a mystical quality that thankfully bears little resemblance to any of the recordings by U.S. folk groups.
For the opening numbers, mostly gospel songs sung in six of eleven South African languages, the choir was dressed in tribal robes as colorful as an African sunset. For the second half of the program, the group donned African choir robes that shimmered and glowed like opals under the stage lights. Indeed, the costumes take on a life of their own with every note, every swinging hip and shaking head, every tapping foot and hand stretched to heaven.
In “Table Scene,” the group’s most theatrical piece, drummers pick up eating utensils and show that tribal rhythms can be produced with unlikely instruments. The young percussionists also are some of the most nimble of the troupe, using high kicks of traditional African dance to amaze the audience. Mastering the choreography — each song had its own steps and movement — has to be a feat in itself, and kudos must go not just to the choreographer but to the troupe, who seem to have every dancing detail down to a dime.
Breaking the gospel choir mold is certainly one of Soweto’s strong points, but there’s no doubt that the traditional close harmony of the gospel choir is its strength. An audience could listen to those songs from morning to night without tiring of them. There’s something mesmerizing about the harmony that puts a listener into an alpha state — of grace, perhaps — that is at once exhilarating and soothing.
By the end of the evening, the Soweto Gospel Choir had clearly accomplished its mission: bringing people of all races and ages together. An encore of “Oh, Happy Day” had people dancing and swaying in their seats (and some in the aisles) and meshed performers and audience into one. And that wholeness — the message of its powerful art, music, dance, and drama — is the uprising that is the Soweto Gospel Choir.
*For this performance, the director was Beverly Bryer. The choreographer/choir master was Shimmy Jiyane, and the costume designer was Lyn Leventhorpe.