By Fiona Shepherd
31 July 2004
The Yeoville Recreation Centre, close to downtown Johannesburg, looks like any church or community hall. Its municipal austerity is brightened up by children’s drawings pinned to the walls. There is a modest stage at one end of the room and the obligatory leak in the roof at the other. Outside, hardcore western techno is pumping from neighbourhood sound systems; inside, 26 exquisitely harmonising voices are raised in euphoric praise to their creator and for the delectation of a posse of visiting journalists.
This is where the Soweto Gospel Choir is rehearsing. Yeoville is a handy meeting point for the members, close to transport links back to the sprawling township where most of the choir live. As these self-styled Voices From Heaven sing, the heavens really do open and Johannesburg is soaked by a very unseasonal thunderstorm. It’s a dramatic combination of sounds.
“Soweto Gospel Choir is powerful. When we preach, people listen,” says David Mulovhedzi, founder and father figure of the choir. “Everybody understands gospel, even if we sing in different languages. It’s a joyful show. We do a lot of dancing and ululating. It’s a sign of being happy on that particular day.”
Mulovhedzi has been involved with church choirs for years. He helped form the Soweto Gospel Choir just 18 months ago, following international demand for a show involving the music and dance of the South African townships. The best singers from Soweto’s churches auditioned. Of the chosen troupe, some had never been on a plane before, while others were seasoned performers.
“In the choir, you have room to improve yourself,” says Lucas Deon Bok, the 27-year-old assistant choirmaster and unofficial MC, whose softly spoken, considered remarks contrast with his wiry and animated stage presence. Last year the choir was one of the unqualified hits of the Edinburgh Fringe, where its mix of traditional township hymns, gospel songs, indigenous dance routines and overwhelming celebratory spirit touched sell-out crowds. “At first, it was very scary,” says Bok. “We had been told the people in Edinburgh were very quiet and reserved but, once we started getting into it, I found the people were very warm, and the vibe at the Festival was phenomenal.”
The response has been the same wherever they have toured. Audiences in Australia (including a sold-out Sydney Opera House), New Zealand, Singapore and Germany have succumbed to their exhilarating sound. Paradoxically, the choir is little known in South Africa, although they received vital exposure for their music and message both at home and abroad on World Aids Day last year, when they performed at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concert in support of Aids awareness, providing backing vocals for Bono, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Gabriel.
Before they left to take their new show to Edinburgh, the choir issued an invitation to visit them on their home turf. Soweto – a conflation of South West Townships – is still referred to as a suburb of Johannesburg but, post-Apartheid, it is a sprawling, spirited city of four million inhabitants. Before democracy, a daytrip here was only for the adventurous; since the free elections ten years ago, the tourist trade has burgeoned.
Like every city, Soweto has its “good” areas and its impoverished ones. To their immense credit, even those living in the most rundown districts are welcoming to voyeuristic visitors. Every rand spent in their spasas (corner shops) and shebeens (once-illegal drinking dens set up in residents’ front rooms, now regulated and tourist-friendly pubs) is appreciated in such a beleaguered economy where the gap between rich and poor has continued to widen since the end of Apartheid. There are 23 millionaires in Soweto, but there is also 50 per cent unemployment.
The best way to sample Soweto is to stay in one of the growing number of B&Bs, but we have just a day to make the most of this enigmatic borough. Mulovhedzi invites us to lunch at his house in the Chiawelo district. There is a surprise in store as we drive down the dusty street to his brick bungalow. A group of young men and women are lined up to welcome us – literally making a song and dance of our arrival in their suburb. This is the Heritage Gospel Choir, another of Mulovhedzi’s musical ventures, but one which has so far confined its touring engagements to South Africa. Locals gather on the street, drawn out of their houses by the sound of music. This, one feels, is a special slice of Soweto life that few tourists will ever witness.
“Life is very normal,” says Mulovhedzi. “In the last ten years, that fear we had about moving around town has gone, the dust has settled down, everybody is enjoying life. Most of our kids are going to multi-racial schools. We have been longing for this type of life for ages, both races.”
The choir addresses this spirit of change in its latest show. Bok, a composer, sound engineer and session musician, has written some of the songs for the new set, which celebrates a decade of democracy in South Africa and the nation’s incredible attitude of generosity and forgiveness.
“I feel that as a nation we are going forwards,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot of pain and hurt but we didn’t let that dictate our happiness or how we were going to react once we got freedom. We could easily have done to people what they did to our fathers and brothers but if you have self-belief nobody can really break you. Sometimes the only way out is to look up to heaven and hope that some day things will get better. I think it’s from our hope that forgiveness flows. These songs brought us through the time when we were in despair. But today we are living victoriously.” There are plans to take this new show to the USA, maybe even to China. “We’ve got a story to tell and the best way is to give it back,” says Bok.
From its inception, the choir has used its international profile wisely. Its ministry is not just evangelical and cultural; it is socially responsible. At each of their shows, the choir collects money for Aids charities (GBP 9,000 at last year’s Fringe), specifically for organisations without government or private funding, who work with Aids orphans. They have set up their own foundation, Vukani, meaning “arise, wake up”, and are now world ambassadors for Mandela’s 46664 initiative.
None of the choir members has Aids. “We are getting educated ourselves,” says Mulovhedzi. “I talk to the group all the time, so that they should be aware that Aids is a killer.” All over Soweto, safe sex and abstinence messages are painted on school walls and roadside hoardings, but the country is still blighted by ignorance. “In Africa as a whole there are tribal traditions,” says Bok. “Some believe in their healer so they think it won’t happen to them. People need to realise that it can and will happen if they do not protect themselves and the ones they love. I think if you can change someone’s thinking, you can change their living.”
South Africa’s Aids crisis has gone way beyond individual responsibility, however. The wilful negligence of President Mbeki’s administration to address the epidemic (5.5 million sufferers and rising every day) has sparked international outrage. In South Africa campaigners get on with the job while their government drags its heels.
Vukani works in conjunction with Nkosi’s Haven, a charity named after Nkosi Johnson, the little boy who became a figurehead for Aids awareness when he addressed the 2000 International Aids Conference in Durban. Nkosi’s Haven is run by his adoptive mother, Gail Johnson, a respected Aids campaigner since 1990. She cuts a flamboyant figure with her scarlet hair and talon nails.
On the day of our visit, Johnson and the choir are delivering food parcels to the children at the Sizanani (meaning “let’s help each other” in Zulu) Community Project, a day centre for Aids orphans run by the gentle and eminently matriarchal Elizabeth Rapuleng. The choir performs for the kids, who sing along enthusiastically to the African anthems. It’s like watching the next generation of choristers audition for their ticket out of poverty and ignorance.
One little boy wears a National HIV/Aids Day T-shirt bearing the dictum: “We will always treat you with respect regardless”; more than being an entertaining respite for the children, the choir’s visit to the project is a lobbying opportunity. Local MP BW Dhlamini, from the Inkatha Freedom Party, is present, and a camera crew is there to cover the event for the national news.
Rapelung would have every right to use such exposure as a platform to air her grievances but, in what emerges as the pattern in this most positive and forgiving of countries, she chooses optimism over recrimination. “This is the best day of my life,” she proclaims.
Lehakwe Tlali, the youngest member of the choir at 18, and also one of its most characterful stars, says: “For me, this is the most emotional part of our work.” Tlali and the children she is helping are the first generation of South Africans to grow up with little or no memory of the Apartheid years.
Steps are being taken to ensure that young people inherit a healthy, healing approach to their dark history. Gleaming new memorials such as the state-of-the-art Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and Soweto’s Hector Peterson Museum, commemorating the Soweto Uprising of 1976, are not just for the benefit of tourists. They aim to help South Africans become reconciled with their past.
With their new Fringe show, the Soweto Gospel Choir are acknowledging this past, celebrating their present and looking to the future. “I think everyone has to know where they come from,” declares Lehakwe. “If you don’t know where you come from, I don’t think you’ll know where you’re going.”