September 8 2004
Its singers were recruited in the township churches of South Africa. Now the Soweto Gospel Choir is selling out shows on almost every continent.
It’s difficult to think of anything that could make this particularly bleak area of Johannesburg feel uplifting. But in a community hall in rundown, unlovely Yeoville, a wall of sound is blocking out the rain thundering on – and through – the roof. The 26 members of the Soweto Gospel Choir are rehearsing, all drums, stamping feet and rich voices. If not actually the Voices from Heaven that the title of their first CD claims, they are a great antidote to these earthly surroundings.
The choir’s 18-month history has seen tours of Australasia, Singapore and Germany. They wowed critics at their sell-out show at the Edinburgh festival last year: “Nothing can really prepare you for the riot of exuberance and depth of emotion,” wrote the Scotsman. But the occasion that brought them international acclaim was Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concert (named after his prisoner number from Robben Island) in Cape Town last November. The Aids benefit was broadcast worldwide, with the choir part of a line-up that included Beyoncé and Miss Dynamite.
Producer Beverley Bryer said: “We were told we’d be required to back a couple of artists but the choir went down and rehearsed and suddenly everyone wanted them. In the end, we were backing virtually all the tracks.” Bono, Peter Gabriel, Anastacia and the Eurythmics were among those keeping them on stage for most of the five-hour set. If at first it seemed the group might be basking in the tide of international goodwill that Mandela and his renewed nation have generated, it quickly became clear the performances could stand alone.
Rightly so, because these singers, aged from 18 to 43, are a select bunch. Bryer and musical director David Mulovhedzi trawled Soweto’s churches, holding open auditions. In the wake of the success in Australia of Umoja (the former West End show based on African music and dance), promoters asked them to bring back a dedicated gospel choir.
Mulovhedzi had been involved with choirs in Soweto for many years, and ended up enlisting some of his own Holy Jerusalem singers to join long-term professionals and complete unknowns who turned up in auditions around the township. Publicity wasn’t a problem: “People soon know when anything’s going on in Soweto,” said Mulovhedzi. In the case of alto and narrator Sipokasi Luzipo, the connection was the local version of Popstars: Bryer heard that an animated and extrovert finalist on the TV show dreamed of being a gospel singer, and gave her a call.
But the members are keen to emphasise that there are no stars among them. “One thing is that we’re all equal. We respect each other,” said soprano Thando Ngqunge. “We met and became friends but equality shines throughout.” And it seems pretty true of the performances: the person you might prematurely think you’ve identified as the second-rower suddenly strolls out and carries the next song. Their African gospel performances include more than just vocals, rich and unusual though these are (the distinctive, tongue-clicking Xhosa is one of 11 languages in the choir’s repertoire). It’s occasionally theatrical, incorporating traditional Venda and Shangaan tribal dance moves, and the odd spot of impressively high-kicking Zulu dancing.
Even rehearsing on this grey Jo’burg day, Mulovhedzi’s pleasure is evident. “When Africans are happy, we dance, ululate, beat drums – it’s beautiful,” he said. It seemed so entertaining and unstuffy I assumed some of the songs weren’t religious at all: numbers such as Thina Simnqobile and Zanele, marked by racing drums and raw, powerful lead vocals with a swinging choral counterpoint, have an enormous energy. It’s hard not to shuffle a little awkwardly during a rendition of Kum Ba Yah. Mulovhedzi insisted, however, that the whole repertoire does have a spiritual element, and most of the songs are drawn from the Bible. “Are you a Christian?” he asked. Not really, I said, and told him that of all Britain’s nominal Christians, only a tiny minority go to church. Mulovhedzi looked shocked. But then, he said, he thinks religion has a particularly important role in troubled South Africa: “When you’re a fully religious person, you harm nobody.”
In fact, the choir’s commitment goes beyond doing no harm: money earned on tour is funnelled back into South Africa’s townships. The major beneficiary is Nkosi’s Haven, a national Aids project established by Gail Johnson, mother of the late Nkosi, the 11-year-old whose address to an international Aids conference was televised worldwide.
The day after the rehearsal I saw the choir performing for children affected by Aids at the Sizanani project in Soweto. They were also bringing the tangible benefit of £4,000 worth of food parcels; despite the opulence in nearby, predominantly white areas, many people here could not usually afford even the basic household staples. I asked band leader Lucas Deon Bok how they had become involved. He replied, simply: “We were making money, so we had to do something.”
At home, most of the group remain members of their own church choirs. “Actually, we’re not that popular in our country,” said drummer Mandla Modawu. “Abroad we’re like pop stars.”
Few of the children watching had heard of them before – Refiloe, 13, whose grandfather had bought her a CD, was an exception. So did they enjoy it? “Yes,” shouted one. “Because they brought us food.” In fact, as the project’s cooks, nurses and volunteers joined the choir in a big dancing melee, they looked pretty wild for the music, too.