17 February 2005
SCHENECTADY – Music, it’s long been said, is the universal language.
That axiom seemed especially true Tuesday night at Proctor’s Theatre.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s message of joy and praise was loud and clear whether the members were singing in Zulu, Swahili, Sotho, Xhosa or English.
The choir is making its debut tour of North America, and certainly some in the crowd were already familiar with the work of similar vocal groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
But the choir is at once sweeter and lighter than those ensembles.
Ladysmith’s trademark rumbling harmonies borrow from a different, perhaps deeper tradition than those of the choir. And Sweet Honey’s political intent is always in the brew.
The choir clearly has its politics and traditions, too, but they offer a more freewheeling – and frankly, populist – blend.
At Proctor’s, in addition to Zulu chants and South African church songs, the group offered interpretations of pertinent pop songs like Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” Paul Simon’s “Homeless” and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.”
“Mbube” was introduced as the source material for the perennial “Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
And “Amazing Grace” brought down the house in a contrapuntal arrangement led by Nathi Hadebe, Lindo Makhathini, Thando Ngqunge and Sibongile Makgathe.
Individual soloists stepped to the front of the stage, but the night was rarely filled with fewer than two dozen massed voices.
Lehakwe Tlali proved to be the ensemble’s most impressive voice of many. It’s a wonder she packs all that sound in such a tiny frame. She lent her edge and power to leads on “Mudimo” and “Asimbonanga” (by white South African pop star Johnny Clegg), as well as drove the ensemble from her place in line.
On some numbers, including the hip-hop inflected “Ahuna Ya Tswanang Le Jesu” and “Siliwelile,” the choir was joined by a full band rather than just the percussion duo of Sipho Ngacamu and Jabulile Dladla (who soloed late in the evening). Joshua Mcineka’s high-life guitar was a welcome treat, even if he was almost drowned out by the sheer will of the voices.
Other numbers featured frantic, ebullient dancing.
The stamping choreography of “Thina Simnqobile” was a delight. And the brightly clad opening dance segment of the second act merged a ritual sense of celebration with Broadway glitz.
Perhaps the most rousing numbers of the evening were “Vuma” and “Going Down Jordan,” which positively crackled. Both exhibited a wonderful humor in the face of praise that is sorely missing in North American gospel tradition.
The choir also amused with an example of vocal warm-up exercises in “Tam Tam Tiri Tiri.”
The nearly two-hour program was capped by with “Nkosi Sikilele,” the South African national anthem.