24 July 2005
The Sunday Mail
They love God and they sing like angels. CATHERINE LAMBERT joins members of the Soweto Gospel Choir in their rehearsal hall
On the main street corner of downtown Yeoville, Johannesburg, graffiti covers the walls. There are kids playing basketball but others, probably most, are just hanging out.
This is the Recreation Centre, which is the Yeoville meeting point and a rehearsal venue for a variety of African bands and dance troupes, including the Soweto Gospel Choir.
The 34 choir members arrive at different times on this winter day, wrapped in padded jackets with scarves secured around their throats. Voices like these have to be protected.
As they start to do a warm-up in a tiny plain room, any sense of misery from the surroundings is overcome. And when they start to sing, heaven comes to Yeoville.
The choir has become a phenomenon since beginning in November 2002. Their Carnegie Hall performance last year was sold out six months in advance and most of their recent 39-city tour of the United States was also sold out.
Like most South Africans, they sing with amazing ease but, unlike most, they use a higher key that puts them into a realm of their own.
Not all of them are from Soweto but they all believe in God and sing quite directly to the source of their faith when they perform. But this is not a hallelujah-style chorus. They are more restrained, yet no less passionate, than that.
Some choir members, such as Lehakwe Tlali, 19, have more reason for their faith than others. Tlali was raised in extreme poverty with her single, unemployed mother and younger sister in South Africa’s Qwa Qwa Free State.
She had to leave school to work and support her family until she raised enough money to return to school, auditioning for the Soweto Gospel Choir a couple of years ago. Singing had been the one constant in her life and she remembers singing when she was three years old.
“Singing for me is very inside,” Tlali said. “It’s what I’m living for and the only thing now in my life. It is what got me out of a poor life and it’s what now really keeps me going.”
Most of the choir members have overcome tough times and they are all held together by the power of their faith and the strong spirit of their voices.
Assistant choirmaster Lucas Bok, 28, manages the rehearsal and sings with utter joy that flows through his slight body.
“I’m here to please people and give them something they have never experienced before,” Bok said. “We can give people some joy with music.
“The optimism we all share seems to bring about joy in our singing and we don’t actually feel as though we’re performing. Everyone is doing this from the heart.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir play Townsville Civic Theatre on Friday, Mackay Entertainment Centre next Sunday, Rockhampton’s Pilbeam Theatre (August 1), Maryborough’s Brolga Theatre (2), Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre (3), Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre (5) and Gold Coast Arts Centre (6).