7 August 2005
A television audition put this young singer from Soweto on the path to success, Clara Iaccarino writes.
Sipokazi Luzipo describes herself as a “church girl with a good voice”.
The 20-year-old singer with the Soweto Gospel Choir truly has the music in her. But much like her fellow choir members, it’s her deep-rooted Christian faith which fuels her career aspirations and she ranks gospel music as her first love.
Luzipo grew up attending Sunday school and singing in the church choir. Raised by her mother, with little financial security, her faith gave her the courage to follow her dreams. When Pop Stars came to South Africa, she auditioned hoping to gain exposure in front of the country’s top music producers even though she knew her robust figure was not necessarily that of the typical pop star. The judges were impressed, and Luzipo found her way to the Soweto Gospel Choir auditions, stunning them with her booming vocals.
“Every time I sang it [gospel], it was from the heart,” she says. “I’m a born-again Christian so my being in the group is a great blessing for me because I don’t only sing, but I feel like I’m a minister.”
Bringing their gospel soul to the world, the 34-member choir is South Africa’s latest musical export success.
Since forming in 2003, they have performed with Bono, Peter Gabriel and Queen among others, at 46664, Nelson Mandela’s AIDS fund-raising concert, and have toured internationally to packed audiences. They were the top-selling act at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, won the Best Gospel Choir Award at the 2003 American Gospel Music Awards and a Helpmann Award in Australia for Best Contemporary Concert Presentation the same year.
The overwhelming power of the Soweto Gospel Choir has seduced critics and non-believers alike. For assistant choirmaster and musical director Lucas Bok, the group’s success spills from the individual members’ dedication. “I think all of us were really born to do it,” he says. “The passion for the music as well, that’s the driving force.”
Representing South Africa’s diverse cultural, religious and language groups, the choir members have become ambassadors for a new South Africa. Though they are quick to acknowledge their roots and the importance of the struggle against apartheid which was centred in Soweto, they espouse a newfound optimism and are keen to celebrate their nation’s liberty through music.
“You really appreciate being South African at the moment,” Bok says. “There’s definitely hope and some way of light. We’re trying to showcase where we come from and where we are right now. We let people know we are on our journey and there is progress.”
Although the choir members range in age and many did not experience the anti-apartheid revolution at its height, they pay tribute to the struggle of their people through music.
“Although as young as I am I’ve never been part of the struggle, I’m a part of it at heart,” Luzipo says. “The struggle will always remain a part of me because we can never forget who we are as South Africans. Celebrating 10 years of democracy is something we uphold and really thank God for as a choir.”
The political and spiritual undertones are ever-present in their performance, but the Soweto Gospel Choir is especially celebrated for its rousing energy. “The beauty of our show is at the end of the evening you’re either in tears or you have a big smile on your face,” Luzipo says.
They sing in eight languages incorporating traditional, tribal and popular African gospel with international hits such as Many Rivers To Cross. But whether or not you understand the lyrics, as Bok says, the music is food for the soul. “What I love most is when I see people crying,” Luzipo adds. “When I see people moved somehow that follows the cliche that music is a universal language and you don’t really need to understand the language to feel.”