By Mark Gresham
The city of Soweto, South Africa, a hotbed at the center of the country’s anti-apartheid movement, turned 100 years old this past October. Although it was founded to keep black migrant workers away from white Johannesburg, Soweto has developed into an innovative urban township, setting trends in politics, fashion, music, and dance.
It is into this climate that the Soweto Gospel Choir was created two-and-a-half years ago to celebrate African gospel music, a style that arose over the past two centuries, combining influences from tribal practices and Christianity. “Soweto is very big, and you’ve got different types of churches,” says choir member Sipokazi Luzipo on the phone from Germany. “You’ve got the Baptists, the Zionists, the Methodists; and out of all of that, the Soweto Gospel Choir has been made. We’ve got people who come from different spiritual backgrounds [and] different musical backgrounds. But when we are on stage, we are one harmony.”
Of South Africa’s 11 official languages, the group sings in five of them: Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Xhosa and English, reflecting the diverse tribal heritages of its members. “As much as there are tribal differences, we don’t really have that when it comes to music,” Luzipo says. “We’ve got what I’d guess you’d say [is] South African style. I am Xhosa, but I can relate easily to a Zulu song. I may not speak Venda, but I can relate easily that it is a South African song. As much as we’ve got diverse culture, faith, and languages, when it comes to music, it’s like one language. You might not speak the language, but when it’s sung, it’s South African.”
Since forming, the choir has quickly risen to national prominence at home, most prominently by showcasing its talents at the 46664 AIDS Benefit Concert of 2004. The group rubbed musical shoulders with pop stars Bono, Peter Gabriel, and the Eurythmics, while performing on stage for Nelson Mandela and a host of celebrities and political dignitaries.
The group has now embarked on its first U.S. tour in support of the album, Voices from Heaven. It offers a good introduction to the choir’s range of styles, from the free, colorful, declamatory “Jekela Emaweni” to the rhythmic stomping and clapping of “Thina Simnqobile” and “Zanele,” the fresh harmonies of “Hlanganani,” and the gracefulness of the brief “Thula Baba.” There are also some Americanized selections thrown in for good measure.
Atlanta is the second stop on the rapid 33-city trek, and it holds a special significance since retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the group’s new official patron, has a history of strong connections to the city.
The choir hopes to win over American audiences by combing South African fare with popular English-language tunes like “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Paradise Road,” “O Happy Day,” “Amazing Grace” and “Amen.” It’s the choir’s way of drawing in new audiences.
“I think our singing in native languages is good, but that’s a reflection of who we are,” says Luzipo. “We are singing what we have grown up with; we are singing what we know. But also, we can bring our audiences in and we can say, ‘You know what? It’s a happy day. Let’s all be happy. Let’s sing together.’ So we’ve got that kind of feel in our show: uplifting, life-changing. If you have come into our show feeling down, you would definitely become uplifted.”