By Alison Barclay
21 February 2003
Soweto Gospel Choir Various venues Music Can talking in too many languages lead to an over-developed tongue? David Mulovhedzi speaks 11 – not just the Zulu, Afrikaans and English that are the main modes of chatter in his native South Africa but also Xitsonga, Venda, SiSwati, Setswana, Ndebele, Xhosa and Northern Sotho – extraordinary lingos that most Australians would never have heard.
“I might not be perfect on everything but I can speak those languages,” says Mulovhedzi.
“I had to learn every official language at high school,” he says.
“We had different people from different areas, whereby when we were to meet we had to speak other languages. It was easier that way.”
And learn them with a good grace he did, because Mulovhedzi believes in unity.
His skills as a polyglot, not to mention his big, sweet, supple voice get a workout every day in his job as master of the Soweto Gospel Choir, which he has drawn from churches all over Soweto and Johannesburg.
But never mind the strange words that you will hear sung at their concerts.
“You will be dancing to our music and everybody will be singing hallelujah!” he declares.
This month marks the choir’s first tour to Australia – its first tour anywhere. The 32 members came together only four months ago and Mulovhedzi admits he is just getting to know them.
One singer, Mazwe Shabalala, shares his euphonious surname with one of South Africa’s most famous musicians, Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Is he a relative? “I’m not sure about Mazwe,” Mulovhedzi says. “I haven’t asked him yet.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir, though it likes the occasional American spiritual – with Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross is favourite – plans to specialise in African gospel music. It is a genre rarely heard here beyond imported CDs.
“It’s quite different from American [gospel]. With African gospel we use traditional drums, djembe and lots of body actions, dancing, ululating,” Mulovhedzi says.
“Lots of different things happen.”
The troupe has been rehearsing five days a week at Johannesburg’s Megamusic complex to prepare for the tour, which after Australia will take it to Britain and possibly Europe and the US.
Now a grandfather, the choirmaster cannot remember a time when he was not a member of the Holy Jerusalem Church, Johannesburg’s hub for the remarkably loud and tuneful Apostolic Christians.
Mulovhedzi says the choir had its origin in Sunday schools “so we had a lot of practice while we were still young”.
“They taught us the stories of living in a Christian world and they taught us lots and lots of songs. Growing up with that type of music, I thought it was very good for me, so I decided to make a career as a gospel singer.”
Surprisingly, the song that means most to Mulovhedzi is not something from an obscure Venda tradition. It’s Amazing Grace, a song which all over the world can make even non-Christians misty-eyed.
“I even told the choir that if the good Lord might remember me one of these days, it will be for singing that song,” he says. “I will listen to them even after I am dead – but Amazing Grace means I am going to that place.”