Soweto Gospel Choir does not disappoint at the Annenberg Center

February 2, 2010

Soweto Gospel Choir singing praises of love, joy

Written by Elaine Welles Tribune Correspondent

Tuesday, 02 February 2010

The Soweto Gospel Choir does not sound anything like what Americans think of as gospel, however the 26-member choral ensemble does not disappoint.

The male and female ensemble commanded the stage at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Zellerbach Theater to a sold-out audience, comprised of an eclectic mix of ethnicities and ages.

“Gospel, which came out of the slavery experience here in America, doesn’t mean the same thing in South Africa,” explained Carol Muller, professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The Soweto Gospel Choir is the epitome … it’s a singular experience, an expression of people’s faith, joy and hope.

It is sheer joy and love for living expressed in these rhythmic voices,” she said.

Gospel music, as defined by this Soweto experience, is the “fastest growing musical genre” in South Africa, according to Muller, who is also a South African native. For those who attended the special pre-concert discussion on Saturday evening, Muller presented background on the Gospel Choir, Soweto, and some South African musical expressions.

Selections in Saturday evening’s concert included songs with religious themes, such as “Let Me Come Near You, Oh Lord,” and songs with less of a direct religious theme, but spiritual, such as “One Love,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and “Still Waters Run Deep,” the latter three of which were combined into an extended, highly energetic presentation.

“This Little Light of Mine” was sung in both English and in a South African language. In several songs, the audience joined in with clapping, and some singing along, as with the selection, “If You Ever Needed the Lord (Sure Do Need Him Now).”

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was an extended, exuberant rendition that also produced audience participation.

Some selections were upbeat and were accompanied by what might look to Americans like “stepping.” There was also the distinctive high kicking that is of traditional South African dancing. Other selections, sounding very much like mainstream secular American renditions, were more solemn and graciously rendered.

The first several songs were delivered a cappella and into the concert, there was drum and guitar accompaniment. The choir sang in four-part harmony in six of the 11 languages spoken in South Africa.
The Soweto Gospel Choir may not have the sounds that an American audience might expect, but the music from this group is powerfully delivered, energetic and sincere. The choir voices are strong and on key. The group is fun to watch, their executions flawless. The choir has its own sound; it is not Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It is the Soweto Gospel Choir, offering a versatile repertoire in which most listeners can find some common ground.

The Soweto Gospel Choir is a Grammy award-winning ensemble, having won two awards for its albums “Blessed” and “African Spirit.” The group has performed with artists such as Diana Ross, Celine Dion, Bono of U2 and Peter Gabriel. The choir has performed for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and former president Bill Clinton.

The choir formed in 2002, in the township of Soweto, an area that is an outgrowth of the apartheid regime of South Africa’s past, when Black South Africans could not live in Johannesburg. They worked in that city, but could not live in it, so they retreated to the territory that became Soweto, a township, according to Muller, that is made up of at least three different Black ethnic groups, each having its own territory within the township.

Prior to the concert on Saturday evening, two members of the Soweto Choir spoke with Muller who asked them what the audience could expect from their concert. Member Mandla responded, “lots of energy, bright colors and bright smiles.” The choir did not disappoint on any of those points.

Mandla and another member of the choir, SheMan, talked about the group’s efforts to assist South African victims of AIDS, especially mothers and children. In 2003, the choir formed an AIDS orphans foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani. Since its formation, over $4 million has been collected for the cause.

In South Africa, according to a South African Health Department survey, nearly 10 percent of the population is living with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Mandla said he has friends, a husband and wife, living with AIDS. Their extended family does not accept them, he said. “Me and my wife, we try a lot to help them get along,” said Mandla. “People need to know,” said SheMan, “that life goes on after AIDS.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir built a village for mothers and children affected by AIDS. After each concert, they collect monies to be delivered to the village and to buy clothes and other necessities for the residents. SheMan said the children’s faces “light up” when they see the clothes and other items brought to them from concert proceeds. SheMan estimates there are about 600 children for which the choir is caring.

Pre-concert entertainment also included a mini-concert by Musica Mundi (Music of the World) a 25-member choir from the Springside School in Chestnut Hill. The choir performed several songs from its around the world series, including pieces from South Africa and Nigeria. Choir members are select students in grades five through eight.

The Soweto Gospel Choir concert is the first in the Annenberg Center’s 09/10 African Roots series, which will also include Habib Koité and Bamada on March 14 and Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir on April 30.