Inspirational African Melodies Join American Tunes
South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir played to a sold-out crowd Monday night at Finney Chapel. If the people packed into the rows and rows of seats that night were expecting an energetic show from a group of singers and social activists who use music as a way of connecting people from around the world, they were not disappointed.
The choir’s visit to Oberlin is part of a 44-city US tour that takes them through 24 states. It is their second tour through the United States in many years. They have been touring internationally since 2003 and have played in venues such as the Sydney Opera House, London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City. Considering their stardom, it was a special treat that they should come to campus as part of the College’s Convocation Series.
The 26 singers, hailing from Hulovhedzi’s Holy Jerusalem Choir, various other Soweto churches and the South African public, are renowned for their eclectic mix of traditional hymns and gospel songs from South Africa as well as renditions of American traditional and contemporary music.
All of the choir members are multilingual and sing songs in at least six of the 11 official South African languages. The selections performed at Monday’s show came primarily from their sophomore album, Blessed, which has received excellent praise and comparisons to the popular group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has recorded a DVD of this performance entitled Blessed Live in Concert.
With the exception of a few songs accompanied by a multi-instrument band, most songs were performed accompanied by only two African drums. The songs they sang came mostly from their two albums and featured not only South African hymns and traditional gospel songs — including American traditionals like “Swing Down” and a breathtakingly beautiful version of “Amazing Grace” — but also contemporary favorites. The audience especially enjoyed the lively rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love” sung in Zulu.
According to the choir’s press materials, they are “dedicated to sharing the joy of faith through music with audiences around the world.” This optimistic motto is manifested both in their music and in the amount of enjoyment experienced by the choir and the audience.
The audience’s reaction peaked whenever the choir performed recognizable hits, often sung in South African languages; there was, for instance, a moving Zulu rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” about legendary activist Steve Biko and a startling performance of “Khumbaya,” which found new life in the performance. The choir was extremely well-received by the audience, who clapped along and even danced to many of the songs.
Monday’s show included not only singing, but also traditional South African dance performed by choir members. The audience delighted in these artistic displays, and it was clear that the choir itself — draped in traditional South African dress with vibrant patterns and colors — was having fun.
The experience on Monday was also flavored by the performance’s theme: a celebration of equality, because 2004 marked the ten-year anniversary of democracy in South Africa. As one choir member told the audience, the choir is committed to “honoring the past while we look to the future.” This could well be their motto, as the show represented both the traditions of South Africa as well as the celebration of South Africans in the world community.
The choir itself has been very active in humanitarian aid in South Africa. In 2003, they established the Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani Foundation, a charity that raises money for institutions for AIDS orphans that have no other sources of governmental or private funding.
Charity work is something about which Musical Director David Mulovhedzi and the choir feel passionately. Mulovhedzi explains the group’s position by saying, “As South Africans, we’re in a position where we’re working hard to help the helpless, especially children. When we perform around the world, we receive donations and when we return home, we use them to buy whatever those kids might need.”
Since the choir was established in 2002, it has raised over $210,000 to provide needy establishments with food, clothing and shelter.
Charity work played a role in inspiring the Soweto Gospel Choir to tour once again, appearing at prominent performing arts venues and in some cities offering workshops for children. With all of the international touring, the Choir has spent little time in their own country, where they also have a significant fan base. Among their fans are former South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, at whose 50th wedding anniversary they were invited to perform with the well-known Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society.
Since their inception, the Soweto Gospel Choir has performed widely. While they have never before visited Oberlin, the group enjoys touring the U.S.
As Mulovhedzi explained, “We know that gospel music is popular in America and we feel that we will also contribute a lot with our own South African traditional gospel.... We were really moved when audiences [in America] got up and danced to our music. It was inspiring to see audience members with tears in their eyes.”
From Oberlin, the group will finish their U.S. tour before returning to South
Africa for an April show in Johannesburg. They are already at work booking their
third tour for 2007, which will include a return to North America.