28 January 2005
Gospel is unlike most forms of music in that the message is always the same. But like any other genre, it can take many forms.
“Voices From Heaven,” the first U.S. release by the Soweto Gospel Choir, offers a few numbers (“Amazing Grace,” “Many Rivers to Cross”) sung in English and arranged as they might be for an American gospel choir.
Most of the songs are in South African languages and are buoyed by distinctively rich African harmonies and typically lively African rhythms.
“There’s quite a number of CDs from the American gospel groups around our shops here,” choir director-conductor David Mulovhedzi, 60, said. “We play that music and we listen to that, but we do our own type of music. We use the African drums, like djembes, and our ladies do their ululating, and there is a lot of dancing around the stage. That’s the way we celebrate our Lord here, in South Africa.”
Following the recent release of “Voices From Heaven” on the Newton-based world music label Shanachie (which helped bring South African music to the attention of Americans with the 1986 compilation album “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto”), the 32-member group is embarking on its first North American tour.
The tour begins Friday in Gainesville, Fla., and arrives at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on Thursday, and at Zankel Hall in New York on Feb. 4. The nearly two-month, 35-show tour will introduce many in the audiences to gospel with a South African twist.
“Gospel is very, very popular in South Africa,” Mulovhedzi said. “We’ve got quite a number of churches. Most of the church choirs have recorded albums, and the albums are selling very well.”
Soweto Gospel Choir came together in 2002 as an all-star group drawn from established church choirs at the behest of Australian promoters who had seen Mulovhedzi’s Holy Jerusalem Choir at a dance performance. Since their first tour, of Australia and New Zealand in early 2003, Soweto Gospel Choir has performed throughout South Africa and in Singapore and Europe.
In late 2003, the group backed Bono, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Clegg at an AIDS benefit concert in Cape Town hosted by former South African President Nelson Mandela. The show was named “46664” – Mandela’s prison number for most of the 27 years of his incarceration – and was documented on DVD and CD.
Soweto Gospel Choir continues to donate money from its tours and album sales to Nkosi’s Haven, a Johannesburg refuge for women and children affected by the AIDS pandemic.
“It’s not just a matter of going abroad and giving praise to the Lord,” Mulovhedzi said. “Whatever little bit (of money) we can get, we bring it home to those people, giving help to South African orphans.”