Keith J. O’Connor
3 February 2005
The sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir, performing Monday at the UMass Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, will deliver audiences to many places, but for some it will put them smack dab in the middle of “The Lion King.”
The a capella harmonies from deep baritone to alto and the pounding rhythms feel like the soundtrack to the popular Disney movie and Broadway play. And there is a connection.
“We do perform ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ which was in the movie. It’s a very old song, one we grew up with,” said choirmaster David Mulovhedzi about the song, originally titled “Mbube” and whose haunting Zulu refrain sounds like “wimoweh” to English-speaking people.
Now on a 35-city North American tour to celebrate the release of their Sanachie label debut “Voices From Heaven,” the choir’s Amherst performance will take place Monday at 7:30 p.m at the Fine Arts Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts.
Tickets cost from $10-$30 for non-students, $7-$15 for students. Call (800) 999-UMAS for more information.
Soweto Gospel Choir was formed three years ago by South African executive producer Beverly Bryer and Mulovhedzi. The two held auditions in Soweto to form an all-star “super-choir” combining the best singers from Mulovhedzi’s own Holy Jerusalem Choir, as well as various Soweto churches and from the general public.
“It all began with producers from Australia who traveled to South Africa to watch a traditional dance group called Ummoja, and from watching their performance they got the idea to form a group of traditional gospel singers to showcase their talent around the world,” Mulovhedzi said.
“From the auditions we ended up with 34 very beautiful voices and a chorus which is very well disciplined,” he added.
Twenty-six of those energetic voices are participating in the North American tour, Mulovhedzi noted.
Africa, especially South Africa, has a long and diverse history with gospel music. When Africans came into contact with European missionaries and churches, they quickly absorbed their religious music and blended it with local traditional music to come up with unique styles and repertoires of spiritual songs. South Africa has long been noted for powerful singers and a capella vocal traditions of great beauty.
“We sing in six South African languages . . . but music is an international language that anyone can understand,” Mulovhedzi said.
“Our music is like preaching to world . . . the music is about the way of God and it appeals to young and old, believers and non-believers,” he added.
Adorned in traditional colorful South African garb, the choir blends South African spirituals, traditional Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho gospel songs which are interspersed with popular songs and traditional tunes.
Soweto Gospel Choir’s Shanachie label debut, “Voices From Heaven,” delivers their full range of talent and the group moves easily from the traditional a capella “Mbube,” popularized internationally by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to straightforward church hymns to rollicking “township jive”-inflected numbers with band backing.
“Each and every song has its own soloist, and the audience gets excited about every one, and we got another standing ovation last night at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Gainesville,” Mulovhedzi said.
He said “Amazing Grace” and “Oh Happy Day” are two special favorites with audiences on the tour.