11 February 2005
Bangor Daily News
When the Soweto uprisings took place in South Africa in 1976, Thembisa Khuzwayo was not yet born. Today, as a resident of Soweto, the 25-year-old has a keen sense of her country’s struggle against apartheid.
“Even though I was not there at the time, I still know what happened,” she said. “These are stories that have come to inspire us and make us become a nation we are proud of.”
Growing up in a rural town in Kwazulu-Natal just east of South Africa, Khuzwayo had hoped to become a lawyer. Her family could not afford the university education, however, so she studied traditional dance, which she will perform with the Soweto Gospel Choir, a music and dance ensemble performing Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Maine Center for the Arts.
The group, which was named “Best Gospel Choir” at the American Gospel Music Awards in 2003, is on a 35-city tour in the United States. Its 26 members are culled from churches around Soweto, an acronym for South-Western Township. They sing in four of the country’s 11 official languages, including Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and English. Though the format is pageantry and art, the message is also of South African pride and social responsibility.
Founded in 2002, the choir performed in 2003 at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Concert, a music-based effort to raise awareness of AIDS. Members of the choir, including Khuzwayo, shared the stage with Peter Gabriel, Bono, Eurythmics, Jimmy Cliff and Queen at the Capetown event.
More important, however, the concert, named after Mandela’s prison number, inspired the choir to develop a program for sharing earnings with an AIDS charity as well as its own foundation for children orphaned by AIDS. On last year’s tour of the United Kingdom, the choir raised $48,000 for the charities.
“We have had to accept AIDS as part of our lives,” said Khuzwayo. “I have close friends infected with HIV-AIDS. My friends continue to die all the time. We’ve all had to awaken to the fact that unless we help and support each other, we’re going to perish from AIDS.”
Khuzwayo was raised by her extended family in the small town of Ladysmith. Her upbringing was “humble,” she said, and memories of childhood include fetching wood and water. She was 10 before she saw a TV, and 15 before she visited a city.
As an adult, however, the dancer has toured Europe, Africa and now the United States. But, she said, her work with the choir stands out in her career. Typically, she has not been with groups that combine dance and music – and religious fervor.
“In South Africa, when you do gospel, you do gospel,” said Khuzwayo. “When you do traditional dance, you do traditional dance. It’s rare to see things mixed up the way we’ve mixed them in this choir. And here I find myself in a gospel choir. I really had to think about that. The religious side is not a problem because, where I grew up, Christianity was always around. But I worried about the religious environment. It has been a changing thing for me. When I see people getting moved by this music, it can’t fail to move me also.”
The presentation has received high praise from reviewers, including The New York Times, which called last week’s Carnegie Hall performance “spirited and spectacular.”
The tour of this country has, for Khuzwayo, been an eye-opening experience. Far more familiar with western TV images and news reports than she was 15 years ago, she expected Americans to be haughty and rude. She hasn’t found that to be true. “It’s all good people living their lives,” she said. So far, the most exciting offstage moment of the tour was when the choir’s bus pulled into New York City during a snowstorm.
“Did we sit in our room?” said Khuzwayo with a chuckle. “No, no. no. We took our jackets and went to Times Square.”
In many ways, Khuzwayo represents the triumphs of her country. She is proud, driven and concerned with the welfare of those around her. She understands where her country has been and has hopes about where it is going.
“South Africa is growing,” she said confidently. “There are a lot of positive developments – especially the fact that the government is taking women and children and human rights as first priorities. We are proud of the spirit of the people of South Africa. To emerge out of that turbulent period into the nation it has become, it’s the one thing I am very proud of. This is a very exciting time for me.”