By Jon Pareles
New York Times
February 7, 2005
Most gospel choirs concentrate on a single message of faith and praise. The Soweto Gospel Choir, which performed on Friday night at Zankel Hall, had an additional one: pride in South Africa.
The 26-member group sang in Zulu, Sotho and English – three of South Africa’s 11 official languages – on a program that mixed Christian and traditional songs and international pop. There was plenty of multi-tasking, too. When they weren’t singing, choir members doubled as a backup band, as drummers or as high-kicking dancers. Resplendent in a rainbow of robes and patterned textiles, with group moves for every song, the choir was constantly in motion and rich in harmony.
Formed in 2002, the group draws members from churches around Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, and it has a cornucopia of remarkable voices: sharp, sweet, kindly, raspy and incantatory leads above a magnificently velvety blend. Since the 19th century, missionary schools in South Africa have provided musical training (and other education), and local styles have fused with Western hymn-singing while staying unmistakably South African.
Like African-American gospel, South African choral music hinges on the interplay of a raw-voiced soloist and the choir’s luxuriant responses. There’s something naturally uplifting about hearing a daring, improvisatory belter suddenly enfolded by a community of singers. The choir’s more traditional South African songs didn’t just harmonize behind the soloist. The group sang overlapping, syncopated chords that gave the soloist a percussive push or radiated prismatically around the melody. Add drums, clapping and, sometimes, whistles or ululations, and the music was both meticulous and unstoppable.
The Soweto Gospel Choir sets out to cover South Africa and the world. Its set spanned unaccompanied traditional songs and the three-chord township pop called mbaqanga. It included “Mbube,” the South African song that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and a pair of songs dedicated to political prisoners under apartheid – Johnny Clegg’s tribute to Nelson Mandela, “Asimbonanga,” and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” – as well as South Africa’s national anthem. The set also included a bit of the current South African hip-hop called kwaito, between the hallelujahs in “Ahuna Ya Tswanag Le Jesu” (“There’s No One Like Jesus”).
Well aware of its foreign audience, the choir gave well-rehearsed explanations of Zulu or Sotho lyrics and sang devout Western songs including “Amazing Grace,” “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Oh Happy Day.” It didn’t need to be so cautious. The familiar songs were neatly sung, but the South African songs were both spirited and spectacular.