April 28 2005
By Susan Budig
Silhouetted on stage against a slate gray backdrop, Sipokazi Luzipo’ clear alto voice calls out into blackness. A taut hide stretched over a jembe provides drumming surface to accompany Luzipo as she chants and narrates Jikele Emaweni in Xhosa. Soon 24 other singers of Soweto Gospel Choir climb the stairs of the Ted Mann Concert Hall, at the University of Minnesota, transporting the audience into another world of color, movement and sound unlike the usual fare found under the red, white, and blue stars and stripes of the United States.
Most of the more than 1200 concert attendees probably didn’t know what to expect. About half of the sold-out seats were filled with season ticket holders who possibly attended the Soweto Gospel Choir concert with a mixture of curiosity and compulsion. The season tickets had already been purchased, so they might as well be used, right?
We weren’t just pleasantly surprised by the show; we were spellbound from the moment the hall’ lights darkened shortly after 7:30 last Tuesday evening, on the first day of March. We sat with our breaths held, eager to see what one of South Africa’ newest vocal groups would produce.
Two and a half years ago, under the urgings of David Mulovhedzi, musical director, the Soweto Gospel Choir pulled itself together and went into the business of performing gospel music both traditional and contemporary.
Craig Carnahan, manager of Ted Mann Concert Hall , while admitting that it’ biased of him to say so, tells me that he found the choir phenomenal. “I was directed to them by the booking agency that I often use. I checked out their website and found the choir exuded an energy that I couldn’t resist.” The sound, dancing, color, and overall integrity so impressed him that he booked them.
Often compared to adysmith Black Mambazo, Soweto Gospel Choir distinguishes itself with voices ranging from deep bass to high soprano as well as the inclusion of contemporary, even hip-hop elements. They move seamlessly from a capella Mbube to traditional American hymns, occasionally backed by a band including electric guitars and keyboard.
After singing songs in several languages last Tuesday, a choir member insists, “we are here to give praise and thanks in the most beautiful language of “music.” I find it’ an advantage to not understand the many languages; I am able to completely immerse myself in the music, experiencing its power and emotion in an aural sense. Not only are there notes to consume, but clicks, trills and whistles customary in African gospel.
The beautiful costumes worn by the singers derive from the many cultures of South Africa. The rich, saturating colors are splashed on the wall behind the choir, slowly waxing from fuchsia to chartreuse to goldenrod to dodgerblue. My eyes stay glued to the stage, my ears hear nothing else, not the audience clapping or the children dancing, other than the luxuriant voices harmonizing as if one instrument.
The first hint of truly acrobatic dance we see comes during the third song, Thina Simnqobile, which is sung in Zulu. With no foreshadowing, men emerge from the back of the choir to the front of the stage kicking their feet up in such a way as to touch the back of their heads with their toes. The women’ footwork is a bit more restrained, perhaps as a result of their floor length costumes and culturally enforced modesty. Nonetheless, the music with its driving drum beat, drenching colors, and heart stopping dance mesmerize the audience.
Ahuna Ya Tswanang Le Jesu, performed with the Soweto Gospel Choir band is a fabulous, energetic song. It includes a smattering of rap. This choir, Christian by choice, flavors the number with a rap that celebrates their heritage, rather than beefing contemporary culture, as does much of American hip-hop.
The choir moves to a few traditional American hymns. Their rendition of Amazing Grace is show stopping. The tenors’ powerful delivery sends chills down my spine. The audience leaps to its feet, during the middle of the show, absolutely overwhelmed with the beauty and intonation the choir uses to perform this old, old hymn. The strength of the singers’ voices is operatic in volume and range, but without the distant formality. Their stage presence is intimate and wise.
After intermission, new costumes adorn the musicians and we enjoy a brief dance segment, a riotous jembe exhibition performed by Sipho Ngacamu and Jabulile Dladla during which I’m sure the hands of the drummers must be completely numb. A demonstration of the choir’ usual warm-up under the direction of choirmaster, Mulovhedzi provides a bit of humor with Mulovhedzi sternly eyeing his choir and feigning disapproval. Several more hymns, including Homeless/Hlanganani Nzimande sung in both Zulu and English, with Paul Simon’ recognizable composing round out the set.
The ensuing encore featured many solo voices and somewhat devolved into an almost glitzy showcase of pop tunes. There was a decisive move from a capella to instrument-backed songs. Yet the caliber of the musicianship overcomes the weaker musical choices.
Concert attendee, Stephanie Daily, enthused, “visually and musically, I think [this show was] the best of this series.” Jim Hughes predicted, “they’re going to sell out every CD they’ve got out there [in the Hall’ foyer].”
Perhaps not, as the tour manager specifically ordered a large shipment of CDs before this Minneapolis concert. One item that was definitely in short supply, however, was energy to walk out the door, as demonstrated by Rahjshiva Koande, 3, who relied on her mother to carry her out. Sabrina Harris said of her daughter, “she was dancing and loving it and then she wore out. But it was a beautiful evening.”