4 February 2005
The Richmond Times-Dispatch
I have already put in a call to my supervisor explaining that I’ll be a little late for work Monday. I’m going to be in South Africa for Sunday service.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s performance Wednesday night at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts has made me a true believer.
I guess you could say I’ve been baptized by the power of perfect pitch, superior intonation and harmony clearly not of this world.
The work of the Spirit is said to be accompanied by signs and wonders. Wednesday night’s performance was no different. The first sign was that the Modlin Center parking lot was filled to capacity. It had me wondering if Amy Grant, Yolanda Adams or maybe Prince was sitting in with the group and I had not been notified.
The second sign was literal. At the door, management posted the following message: “Gospel music is, by nature, vibrant and enthusiastic, which may occasionally result in uncomfortable volume levels for some patrons.”
I knew then — we were going to experience a miracle.
The night began with a set of traditional Soweto songs including “Vuma,” “Thina Simnqobile” and “Mudimo.” Each of these songs was sung in Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa. All three languages are characterized by lengthy and pronounced vowel sounds. The elongated e’s and o’s provide support for the harmonies South Africa is known for, via Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The more than 600 people in attendance did not appear the least affected by the language difference. In fact, the songs performed in English seemed to have less of an impact on the audience.
Many of the 25 songs were performed a cappella or with the accompaniment of congas. “Amen,” “Going Down Jordan” and “Siliwelile” were performed with a four-piece band. “Siliwelile” even incorporated some hip-hop elements and a rap interlude. Yes, rap music has spread to Soweto.
The group did not just sing; it showed it can dance up a storm as well. Male and female members took turns coming forward to display some high kicks and fancy arm work. It’s apparent that one doesn’t do much sitting in the pews at a South African church service.
Even with the flourish of drums and high kicks, the human voice was the real star of the evening. The handpicked choir members are among the best South Africa has to offer, and you could hear it in every note.
It’s easy to see why the Soweto Gospel Choir has a growing celebrity fan base that includes Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Jimmy Cliff.