14 February 2005
Bangor Daily News
Zulu dancing, jewel-colored outfits and driving percussion are not elements typically associated with church choirs. But if more religious services offered music and dance with the alacrity and fervor of the Soweto Gospel Choir, it’s a sure bet that the pews would be filled each week.
On their first U.S. tour in 35 cities this winter, the South African choir and band performed elatedly for two hours Sunday at the Maine Center for the Arts. The music, sung in Zulu, Swahili, Sotho, Xhosa and English, included upbeat traditional tunes, ballads, street rap (similar to the American type), lullabies and recognizable melodies such as “Mbube,” better known in this country as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Modern renditions of gospel medleys such as an “Amen” chorus arranged by Otis Redding and “Many Rivers to Cross” composed by Jimmy Cliff, as well as Paul Simon’s “Homeless,” connected a distinctly African voice to its American counterparts. A performance of “Amazing Grace” showed off the varied voices brought together for this tour from a handful of churches in the sprawling township of Soweto.
To aid audience understanding of the many South African languages, gracefully synchronized hand gestures and spoken commentary told the musical stories of praise, redemption, ritual and salvation.
The dancing, of which there was far too little, was high-kicking and fast-paced, with fellow cast members gleefully contributing whistles and warbling shouts. Every creative moment in this show was delivered in a call-and-response fashion or greeted with ululant encouragement by the ensemble. Often, two or three featured singers would hold hands and exchange smiles.
Part of the mission for the members of the Soweto Gospel Choir is to raise money for AIDS charities in South Africa. They also serve as cultural envoys conveying patriotism and pride for their country’s triumph of democracy in the last decade. “Asimbonanga/ Biko,” written by Jimmy Clegg and Peter Gabriel, honored Nelson Mandela, and the audience readily stood to join the singers, as they placed their hands on their hearts, for “Nkosi Sikilele,” the South African National Anthem.
Twenty years ago, when Soweto was recovering from being the epicenter of apartheid, it’s unlikely that a show such as this one would have been as joyful. But this well-trained, expertly prepared choir was humble, gracious and confident frequent contributor to the Times Union. s it gave joyfully of its talents.