13 August 2005
When Nelson Mandela heard them sing he went up to them and said “what beautiful music”. They stirred Brian May from Queen, they wowed Bono, Peter Gabriel and Josh Groban and they’ll back Diana Ross in November. But the best part for the performers in the Soweto Gospel Choir is they can now make a living and see the world doing what they love best – singing their hearts out.
The choir will perform in Canberra on Tuesday, with their Australian tour coming hot on the heels of performances in New Zealand, Spain, Britain and Greece. A tour of the United States is slated for early next year. The 34-strong choir is fast making a name for itself around the world. The beauty of the singers’ voices is captivating and their show also incorporates dance, another strong element of South African culture.
The members are drawn largely from churches around Soweto, the famous Johannesburg township where blood was spilt and lives lost during the riots against apartheid control in 1976. For many in this young choir – they’re mostly in their 20s – apartheid is a thing of the past and the future is bright indeed.
But to understand song in South Africa is to understand the history of church choirs, as during apartheid churches were one of the few places where people could legally gather without being harassed. Since song is one of Africa’s gifts, they sang to bring joy in a world often devoid of hope, and even today, churches are important community centres.
Nowadays, executive producer and director Beverley Bryer points out, there is still sadness when the township churches fill on Sundays.
But this time it is often directed towards a new enemy – the AIDS epidemic that is devastating Africa. “The church is still a shelter for people with hard lives,” Bryer says. “The AIDS orphans, the poor … on Sunday that church is still a beacon for them. I’ve seen it so many times.”
Of course the choir aims to entertain first and foremost. Since its first international performances in Australia two years ago – including a sold-out Sydney Opera House show – it has rapidly earned world renown. The choir performed at 46664: The Concert, Mandela’s AIDS fundraiser that was broadcast to millions world-wide. It won the Best Gospel Choir Award at the 2003 American Gospel Music Awards, as well as a Helpmann in Australia in the same year for Best Contemporary Concert Presentation. The choir was a top attraction at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a year later, following a successful five-week British tour, and already this year it has topped the US Billboard World Music Chart.
For musical director Lucas Bok, music gives him fulfilment in life. “It’s something I can relate to, it’s something I grew up with, it’s part of my life.” The 28-year-old tenor also plays bass guitar in the band and is assistant choir master. “I’m living my dream,” he says simply. “I’m doing what I feel I’ve been designed to do.” He says he’s looking forward to the tour because, “Australians appreciate art, they really pay attention to detail, if you’re doing something difficult in the harmonies they notice, they really appreciate it. As a musical director, when you put in stuff to create colours in music, it makes you feel good when people appreciate it.”
Members of the choir spend at least eight months of the year on the road, performing around the world. They recently returned to South Africa for one show only, to honour Bishop Desmond Tutu’s 50th wedding anniversary at the Holy Cross Church in Soweto.
“It’s a show more than a concert,” says Bryer. “We’ve got dancers, and with African gospel there is constant movement on stage. Within the songs there’s dancing, then after the second half there’s a dance number.” The repertoire includes gospel, international gospel, some traditional African songs – including the beautiful Weeping – and a selection compiled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of democracy in South Africa last year.
The creation process is largely collaborative, with choir members bringing songs or ideas about songs. The criteria, Bryer explains, is that they must be both traditional and appeal to an international audience. After songs have made the cut, musical directors work in the arrangements and a choreographer works in the movements, with the end result leaving the likes of the New York Times to describe them as “meticulous and unstoppable, spirited and spectacular”. Or Brian May to call them wonderful.
Actually, Bryer says, some of the choir members still correspond with him on e-mail. It’s a far cry from singing in Soweto’s humble churches and they’re loving every minute of it. “They sing about life and love in South Africa,” says Bryer. “There may have been problems, but they’re in the past, and life is joyful.”