Deborah Evans Price
15 January 2005
Gospel music has always been fueled by great choirs, and though names like Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Mississippi Mass Choir are legendary, the United States is not the only country to produce such great musical traditions. Stateside audiences will soon become familiar with the considerable talents of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
This month the South African group embarks on a 35-city North American tour supporting its American debut, “Voices From Heaven,” on Shanachie Entertainment. The tour kicks off Jan. 28 in Gainesville, Fla., and concludes March 26 in Vancouver.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 by its musical director, David Mulovhedzi. “We ended up with 34 very good members with very good voices,” he says. “The first tour was Australia and New Zealand in April 2003. The venue that stands out most in my mind is the Sydney Opera House. It was just wonderful.”
The choir’s profile in its native land increased in November 2003 when Nelson Mandela launched a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the impact of AIDS in Africa and invited the group to perform along with Bono, Queen, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff and Eurythmics.
Mulovhedzi says the choir recorded its first album to have something to sell during the Australia/New Zealand tour. “We perform most of the songs from the very same CD, and it’s selling well and it already has made its mark,” he says of “Voices From Heaven,” which originally came out in South Africa and Australia in 2003.
“Blessed” followed in 2004. “Our goal in recording is to reach out to the outside world,” Mulovhedzi says.
The choir has also performed in Germany, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Mulovhedzi says touring North America has always been a goal.
“The whole choir is excited about performing in the States, because we are bringing our traditional gospel,” he says. “We as Africans are here to thank God for all the wonderful things he does for us. We have got different ways of doing that, because we sing and we beat drums, and [there is] dancing. When people come watch our music, they’ll enjoy it, because there’s a lot of action within the music itself.”
Mulovhedzi says South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo has helped pave the way for his choir. “We respect them and love them a lot,” he says. “They have opened doors for most of the choral groups throughout the world.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir is using those open doors to help others. It recently launched its own charity in association with Nkosi’s Haven, an AIDS care project named for Nkosi Johnson, an 11-year-old AIDS victim who addressed the United Nations international AIDS conference.
When someone passed the choir’s music to Shanachie GM Randall Grass, he was immediately impressed. “I listened and obviously heard the quality of the music. Then I saw that they had a 35-city tour outlined for the U.S.,” Grass says of the IMG Artists-booked outing. “Not only were the number of cities impressive, but so were the kind of places that they were playing for an artist who hadn’t had an album out here yet.”
Shanachie already had experience with South African music, as the label has released many recordings, including those by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in the United States. “I feel some of the same excitement that I did when we first released Ladysmith,” Grass says.
The plan is to release “Voices From Heaven” first (on Jan. 25), then issue “Blessed” next year.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here in the beginning because, happily enough, there’s a lot to work with,” Grass says. The label will target world music and eclectic noncommercial stations. A three-song sampler will be sent to gospel radio.
Grass sees a broad audience for the Soweto Gospel Choir. “The shows have great costumes and dance. A lot of people don’t realize dance is a part of church services in many parts of Africa. Some people in America might see that and say, ‘It’s show business,’ but no, it’s their worship. There are many dimensions. It’s not just people standing there singing. It’s the whole pageantry of it and all the emotion and energy.”