24 July 2005
Beverley Bryer is a softly-spoken white South African and — to international eyes perhaps — the less-than-likely driving force behind one of the youngest and most exciting choirs in the world: the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 25 years,” says Bryer on the phone from Johannesburg.
“I’ve been in music publishing, rock concerts; I’ve been a producer, and I lived in Australia for 10 years where I worked for Paul Dainty, but I came home for a year and … ” You can hear her shrug and smile.
Bryer put together the on-field entertainment for the Rugby World Cup and that was the beginning.
“I rang Clifford Hocking who was the Melbourne Festival director at the time and said, `I’ve got this wonderful dance company, please come and see them.’ He did and that was Umojaa. But the gospel section was so popular Andrew Kay said, `Can you put a choir together’?”
Asking that question in a country whose politics, revolution and survival were founded on singing meant the answer was a simple “OK”. Bryer decided to gather the singers from different communities and, within two months, had cut a CD calling card and, within three months, the ensemble was touring internationally.
“We’ve been touring all the time,” she says of the officially 34 strong choir. “We went to Edinburgh and it just snowballed.”
Since 2003 the choir has topped the Billboard world music charts with their first CD, Voices From Heaven; shared stages with stars including Annie Lennox, Bono, Peter Gabriel and Nelson Mandela. The age range is 19 to 45, they sing in eight different languages, including English, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho; and the routines — musical, comedy and dance — arise from mucking about in rehearsal and are what make them uniquely African.
“It’s not contrived,” says Bryer. “I’ll see one of the guys fooling around during warm-up and it’s so funny. So we keep it in. The mixture is fantastic I think. We celebrate the African traditions as well as 10 years of democracy. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy them, just believe in music!”