By Tony Montague
March 24, 2005
The 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir doesn’t boast any divas or stars. All the young men and women in the ensemble, founded three years ago in South Africa’s most famous black township, enjoy equal status. Everyone gets to step out front and sing lead at some point, and according to musical director Lucas Deon, that’s what gives the choir its exceptional sense of community and camaraderie.
“We come from several different churches and tribal groups, and it’s very important to build a deep mutual respect and to find joy in each other’s company,” says Deon, speaking from Oakland, California, on the choir’s first North American tour. “You can hear and see that spirit in everything we do-on-stage and off-stage. We always intended it that way, and I think it really gives an extra dimension to our music.”
The SGC’s international success has been little short of phenomenal. Its exuberant performances of traditional African chants and spirituals, Christian hymns, and occasional popular songs draw rave reviews and have packed houses from Melbourne to Edinburgh. The choir sings mainly a cappella in great, swelling harmonies, often punctuated by cries and ululations and accompanied by hand-clapping. The more rhythmic numbers are powered by djembe drums or a four-piece electric band.
The choir’s big break came with an invitation to appear at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s 46664 concert (named after Mandela’s prisoner number) in Cape Town in November 2003, a benefit for AIDS victims. The SGC joined a lineup that included Beyoncé, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Eurythmics, and Jimmy Cliff, and the show was broadcast across the world on MTV.
“That day was a dream come true for me,” the 28-year-old Deon recalls. “We were the number-one choir, at the heartbeat of everything. We’d been asked to back a couple of artists, but after our rehearsal, suddenly everyone wanted us. In the end we were backing virtually all the songs. It was a huge challenge-and a very emotional occasion. We sang our hearts out.”
Soon afterward the SGC went into the studio to record its inspired debut, Voices From Heaven. The album features a broad mix of material, from the distinctly secular opening cut “Jikela Emaweni”, a muscular Zulu chant that calls on young men to fight for their manhood, to the American hymn “Amazing Grace”, sung with quiet passion. “We embrace such diversity as a reflection of what gospel music in our country mostly is today,” says Deon. “We sing in a number of different South African languages-Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, English, and Afrikaans-as well as Swahili.”
When the Soweto Gospel Choir plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts this Saturday (March 26), the program will primarily feature numbers from Voices From Heaven. However, Deon also promises a gospel-inflected version of perhaps the best-known South African song: the Zulu chant originally written by Solomon Linda, adapted and renamed as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. The choir performs it with rich and polished harmonies in the mbube style familiar to Ladysmith Black Mambazo fans.
“But the show isn’t just about music,” Deon says. “It has a strong visual appeal. People will feel they’re in Africa. We include some Zulu dances of celebration and victory that are extremely energetic and powerful. And we dress in bright costumes, mixing up the different traditions so that everybody on-stage wears something that reflects another tribal group from their own. It all helps to draw us together.”
For all the joy and vitality evident in their music, the SGC members are deeply troubled by the HIV/AIDs crisis in South Africa. Deon points out that gospel can play an important role in the struggle against the pandemic. “Many infected people are shunned by their families,” he says. “Our churches and gospel music can give them a sense of belonging to a much greater family. It’s time to speak out-and sing out-on their behalf.”
The ensemble has set up a charity to raise funds for organizations that help AIDS orphans but receive no government funding. Whenever permitted, the SGC collects donations at its concerts. “We were making money, so we felt we had to do something,” Deon explains. “We try to help the kids and their families by providing things like school transportation. Sometimes we buy furniture for their homes, provide entertainment, or take them out so they can feel they’re loved. It’s all really hands-on stuff.”
Mindful of his country’s hard-won democratic rights and the huge challenges it faces, Deon is resolutely upbeat and strong in his faith. “We sing about our gratitude towards God and towards all the people who supported us through our long struggle against apartheid-and continue to give their support. We feel very blessed, and we’ve got reason to celebrate. The message of our music is simple: to enjoy life and live it to the full, despite all the hardships.”