By Jessica Nicholas
25 February 2003
There is something special about watching a group in a performance that is part of its first international tour.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed less than six months ago, and many of its 32 members have never travelled outside South Africa until now.
Indeed, for several of the performers – some of whom are still in their teens – this Australian tour is their first professional engagement. They usually sing in their local church.
As a result, there was excitement at the Concert Hall on Sunday, a sense that these artists were not only singing the Lord’s praises, but revelling in this opportunity to perform their music on a world stage.
Much of the repertoire – a mixture of traditional and contemporary South African gospel, along with a few popular American gospel and soul numbers – was charged with a celebratory energy that was enhanced by the singers’ glowing costumes and expressive hand and body movements. There were dancers, too, mostly young men, gleefully high-kicking as the choir encouraged them with whistles and “hollers”.
The three drummer/percussionists at the side of the stage bubbled subtly behind the singers or thrust them into a joyful fervour with a battery of irresistible rhythms. The a cappella numbers were equally effective, the singers’ undulating phrases swaying to an unmistakable pulse.
But although the limited professional experience of many of these artists gave their performance a delightfully spontaneous appeal, it limited the potential power of the music they were presenting.
The delivery of each soloist was filled with vitality and life, but only a handful of performers – like the wonderfully poised and graceful Sibongile Makgathe – had the maturity and presence to truly uplift the soul through the power of their voices.
A few of the younger singers sounded either flat or slightly sharp at times, presumably due to nerves or over-excitement.
It is also possible they were having trouble hearing the four-piece band that accompanied the choir on several numbers.
Whether this was due to poor miking or the fact that the band was hidden behind the 32-piece choir is not clear, but the result was an appallingly muddy acoustic that made the musicians – through no fault of their own – sound like a school band playing in an oversized assembly hall.
But despite the flaws (which, in some ways, emphasised the humanity of these obviously gifted performers), the overwhelming impression left by the Soweto Gospel Choir was of a musical ensemble that holds great promise, and a powerfully positive cultural enterprise that celebrates the spirit of South Africa with joy, humour and sincerity.