By Beth Pearson
3 August 2004
Soweto Gospel Choir is bringing the sound of Africa to Scotland. All they ask in return is a little support for the sufferers of HIV in their homeland. By Beth Pearson
A few minutes ago, David Mulovhedzi was leading the Soweto Gospel Choir in a short performance at Sizanani Community Project in Soweto, South Africa. He’s now directing his 26-strong choir, which will headline at Edinburgh Festival, in the distribution of food parcels. Bags of onions, packets of spaghetti, loose fruit, boxes of stock cubes, cartons of eggs and heaving bags of maize have been unpacked into neat mounds, while a young member of the choir tops each with a cauliflower.
The parcels will be sent home with the audience, some of whom are sitting patiently in their seats under a corrugated iron shelter, while the younger members run to occupy the cardboard boxes as soon as they are emptied of their contents. All are children from nearby Aids orphanages and several are infected with HIV. Today’s event has been jointly organised by the choir, through its charity Vukani Foundation, and Nkosi’s Haven, a project named in memory of 12-year-old Aids victim Nkosi Johnson. As assistant choirmaster Lucas Deon Bok says: ”We make money, so why not give?” The Vukani Foundation – whose name means ”arise, wake up” – raised (pounds) 9000 at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and is integral to their work.
Yet Bok’s simple formula betrays the magic of Soweto Gospel Choir. Formed only 18 months ago, the group has already toured in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Germany and the UK, as well as performing at last year’s 46664 concert, hosted by Nelson Mandela and featuring U2 and Beyonce.
Mulovhedzi has worked with many gospel choirs over the years, but he acknowledges the Soweto Gospel Choir is something special. ”There are a lot of gospel choirs around, but the thing that makes Soweto Gospel Choir so special is that in South Africa we’ve got too many churches and the choirs have their own sound. In our choir, we combine all sounds.” He has been surprised as anyone at the choir’s success, however. ”When we started, we never thought it would be like this,” he says. ”We started slowly, wondering if we were going to make it. Within a month or two, we realised we had the right people and the right type of music, then we went to cut the CD, but we never thought we’d be this big.”
The youngest member of the choir is 18 years old and most are in their twenties, which means Mulovhedzi has taken on something of a father role. ”I’m bound to be a father figure, if not a grandfather,” he says. ”They’ve changed a lot since it started. They feel like they own it, you know, that this is their thing and they’ll protect it at all costs.”
Thembisa Khuzwayo, 24, sings and dances with the choir. ”It is my job but also it’s not just a job,” she says. ”You’re doing a job but you’re also changing someone’s life while you’re at it. When you touch someone you either change them for the better or for the worse. I choose better.”
It’s the kind of optimism needed in South Africa, where it is estimated that by 2008, 1.6 million children will have been orphaned by Aids.
”It’s very important, especially to our age group, the youth,” says Khuzwayao, who is from the Naledi district of Soweto. ”With all the things going on in the world – the diseases, the crime – it’s very important for us to keep sending out good messages.”
While the choir’s charity work is always local, their success has been anything but. ”That’s the irony of all of this,” says Khuzwayao. ”When we play here it’s for private functions. There are other gospel choirs here that are well-known, but because ours is new in the South African industry, they don’t know much about us.”
She agrees that the choir has a unique sound, which will distinguish it from other choirs when it begins to make its mark in South Africa. ”Most of the choirs here do contemporary stuff, stuff that would be done by American choirs,” she says. ”Our approach is more traditional African gospel. We do have a few cover versions and a few contemporary ones, but our main focus is African.”
Khuzwayao is one of its more experienced members. She had worked on Umoja, the celebration of South African music and dance, which toured in 22 countries. Others who joined Soweto Gospel Choir had never flown before, but they’re all seasoned travellers now.
When they are abroad, they crave the South African cuisine of mashed pumpkin with cinnamon, spicy chicken, mashed beans, beef stew and spinach in gravy. During their month-long stay in Edinburgh last year, they paid weekly visits to Indebele, the African cafe, where Bok would impart recipe tips and lightheartedly criticise the restaurant for its pan-African approach.
Back in Johannesburg, the choir sing in the gym hall at Yeoville Community Centre, a short walk through a park where sweets are sold from a makeshift crate stall and kids sit listening to music. The air has been humid all day and the clouds foreboding. When the skies open, their voices can be heard above the rain hammering on the iron roof, and even distract from the dramatic flashes of lightning – and it’s just a rehearsal.