14 August 2005
The Spirit of Things
Rachael Kohn: Gospel music was first sung by African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Its lively, repetitive rhythms and use of harmony was one of the happier expressions of an oppressed people.
Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn and today on The Spirit of Things here on ABC Radio National, we’re singing songs of joy.
SINGING –OH HAPPY DAY
Rachael Kohn: My guests today are several members of the acclaimed Soweto Gospel Choir, who know what it’s like to be oppressed, having grown up during Apartheid. But they’re touring Australia, celebrating ten years of democracy in South Africa, and wowing audiences with their heavenly voices.
Later in the program, we speak to economist and composer, Robert Ashford, whose music is often heard on the American radio program, All Things Considered. He’s now composed for The Lord’s Prayer, and he tells me why.
The music of the Soweto Gospel Choir is thrilling and has a warmth that just gets under your skin. Five members of the choir, including musical director, David Mulovhedzi, came to the studio for a chat, and they also performed three songs especially for The Spirit of Things. This first one is Jerusalem.
SINGING – Jerusalem
Rachael Kohn: Well that’s Jerusalem as I’ve never heard it before. Is that a traditional hymn, David?
David Mulovhedzi: It’s a very religious hymn and traditional at the same time, but most of the South African people, they like it so much so we felt this is a very religious type of a song that lifts up the spirit of everybody when you start singing it.
Rachael Kohn: So we’d be hearing that or seeing that in a church service most Sundays?
David Mulovhedzi: Yes, definitely.
Rachael Kohn: Well gospel music as we know it originated from African-American culture; what is distinct about South African Gospel music?
David Mulovhedzi: South African Gospel music, it started with our forefathers when there was drought and famine in the land. Our fathers used to go to the mountains, just to hold some ceremonies, asking God for rain, and immediately after that when they came back the rain started falling, and there was a celebration, and the ladies were beating drums, ululating, and it was such a lovely thing because God had answered their prayers. Hence that’s a way of celebrating God, giving thanks to God. So when Christianity was now taking place in the whole of Africa, the traditional type of song and the Christianity, we embraced that together. Hence our music is so traditional and modern at the same time.
Rachael Kohn: Yes. Well in fact Jerusalem, in what language were you singing it?
Sipokazi Luzipo: We sang that in a language called Xhosa.
Rachael Kohn: You do that click that I can’t quite get.
Sipokazi Luzipo: The click is right there, right at the back of your tongue, so Xhosa.
Rachael Kohn: I think I’d need a whole year to get that right. How many languages?
Sipokazi Luzipo: We’ve got 11 official languages in our country, but in the performance we perform in five of those.
Rachael Kohn: And which are they?
Sipokazi Luzipo: Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, English and Afrikaans.
Rachael Kohn: Yes. Is that choice a kind of political one? Do you feel you have to represent all of the regions and all the peoples in Southern Africa?
Sipokazi Luzipo: Our country is actually known as the Rainbow Nation, so we’ve got the diverse cultures and faiths, and in the group, we don’t all come from the same church, but music has a universal language. So we normally don’t represent that. But we always try and bring Gospel the South African way, and the South African way is the diverse cultures and the diverse fates.
Rachael Kohn: Sipokazi you’ve actually won a number of choir competitions, church choir competitions; is that where you first started to sing?
Sipokazi Luzipo: Yes, I started singing at church and Sunday School because I have grown up from a Christian family. And then from Sunday School I went to High School, and I entered talent shows and in church I’d sing and I’d win a whole lot of competitions, but I always had a love for Gospel, because I felt that I could express it easily because I’m a child of God, so when I sing, I sing about what I know. What I sing about is love, it’s because I’ve seen it in my life. So I felt I could relate easier to Gospel than any other genre of music.
Rachael Kohn: So, singing is inseparable from your faith?
Sipokazi Luzipo: They’re just one and the same thing to me. Sometimes when performing, I feel like I’m a minister somehow, although I know that that is a job that is done by the men of God, but sometime I feel like I’m also working with people’s souls, you know, that when you find people coming to our performances feeling down, I need to pick their spirits up, and somehow I guess that makes me a minister somehow.
Rachael Kohn: An evangelist, yes, and that probably explains why there’s such a strong response to the Soweto Gospel Choir. David, where did you go about – did you actually go to the different churches recruiting great singers?
David Mulovhedzi: With the Soweto Gospel Choir, what happened was our friends from Australia here, of course our producers, they came to South Africa. So hence the idea came to them that we should form a Gospel group.
Rachael Kohn: You mean it was an Australian idea?
David Mulovhedzi: Yes, definitely.
Sipokazi Luzipo: This is why Australia is our second home.
David Mulovhedzi: Yes, this is our home, definitely the second home. So what we did we auditioned most of the choristers from different churches and communities, hence we came up with 34 very beautiful voices. So the Soweto Gospel Choir was formed.
Rachael Kohn: What churches constitute the membership? Are they generally Protestant churches?
David Mulovhedzi: You know, we’ve got quite a number of churches in South Africa, like the Catholics, the Apostolics, the Zionists, you know.
Rachael Kohn: Ethiopian I think, too?
David Mulovhedzi: Ethiopian is also there, and quite a number of them.
Rachael Kohn: Apostolics?
David Mulovhedzi: Our artists come from different churches, hence our music, it’s such a unique type of music because we’ve got everything within that music. Hence when we perform, it’s in every song that we perform and so it’s such a wonderful type of music; it comes from different churches.
Rachael Kohn: So representative. How strong is the Pentecostal tradition in those churches? And does that produce good singers?
David Mulovhedzi: It does produce very, very good singers, in such a way that when you attend the church, the service is full and the singing is so beautiful and you know you find people being in high spirits. So hence when we sing with the Soweto Gospel Choir – you will also see that on stage – that when we sing certain songs we like, we care about it, you know???
Rachael Kohn: Well high spirits is a very significant, it’s almost a signature of the Soweto Gospel Choir. Does it say something about the importance of singing in South Africa?
Sipokazi Luzipo: Oh yes. As David said, in South Africa a child is born, they’re singing. Someone gets married, they’re singing. Funerals, they’re singing. So out of everything that has happened, we’ve learnt to depend on music. So everything that we do is high spirited, and in fact that even reflects on our performance, because we don’t just stand and sing. Our singing goes with movement, and that’s a part of lifting up our spirits somehow. And our performance is full of energy and full of jubilation, so I think that is high spirited. We’ve got djembes, we’ve got movements, we’ve got a four-piece band, and it’s all high spirited.
Rachael Kohn: It’s very physical. Yes. it’s a very physical presence. You move; it’s so different from the European choir tradition.
Sipokazi Luzipo: It’s the kind of performance that you feel like you’re a part of, you know. And that’s where the narration comes in and I interpret the lyrics of the songs, and I fill the audience in because we sing in a native language to our audiences, so at times they might not understand the meanings of the songs. So our performance is the kind where at the end of it, it’s either you’re crying or you’re either standing up and clapping your hands or in the spirit, you know.
Rachael Kohn: How different is this year’s performance to the last time you were here, I think it was two years ago? Have you changed the songs?
David Mulovhedzi: We’ve got a new CD called Blessed. That’s a CD that we’re be performing most of our songs from, that CD. So it’s a completely new show, whereby people really enjoy that, ye.
Rachael Kohn: And the singers, do they all come from Soweto? Or are there singers from Natal? How far spread are they?
David Mulovhedzi: Some of them come from P.E., East London, but the majority come from Soweto.
Rachael Kohn: Tell me about Soweto. Is your music sung there now by children on the streets?
Sipokazi Luzipo: Oh yes. Soweto’s my spiritual home, that’s where you find the diverse faiths. When I go to church, my church is in a small town called Rockville.
Rachael Kohn: And what is your church?
Sipokazi Luzipo: My church is Assembly of God, it’s a Christian movement, and you know, Soweto is its own town somehow, and that’s where you go if you want to have a good time, you know. That’s where you go if you’re looking for a church, a Zionist, you’ll find them there, Pentecostal, you’ll find them there, that’s where you find people speaking 10 languages in one taxi, you know. It’s young, it’s vibey, it’s funky, that’s where history took place, you know just entering Soweto you become inspired.
Rachael Kohn: Speaking of history, I understand that recently you sang for Archbishop Tutu, was it?
David Mulovhedzi: Yes, on his 50th anniversary. That took place in a place called Orlando. We sang very well there, and even former President Nelson Mandela was also there, and it was a beautiful day, and Tutu’s a lovely old man, and he made quite a lot of jokes, and he enjoyed our music a lot, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Well yes, he’s known as the smiling one, so I’m sure he cracked a few jokes. Was that something like a high point of your career? What would you say was one of the great moments?
David Mulovhedzi: I think it was a great moment to be invited by a man like Desmond Tutu, and again being in the same place with Nelson Mandela. You know, it’s such a wonderful thing. In fact we felt very much honoured to be honoured as the Soweto Gospel Choir on that special occasion, it was quite good for us, yes.
Rachael Kohn: How has it changed your lives now that you are so famous and so successful? I mean there hasn’t been a review that hasn’t gushed with enthusiasm?
Sipokazi Luzipo: I think by being in this choir, all of us have learnt how to be humble, and how to know what a blessing is in life. I think all of us might have different backgrounds and some of us might have musical experience, and some might not. But I think all of us have seen a blessing out of the choir.
We’ve been to places that we never imagined, performing in the Carnegie Hall in New York, was beyond this world; performing in the Sydney Opera House was breathtaking. And for us as a group, before every performance we hold our hands and we get together and we never forget our God, because we’ve all realised that it’s a blessing. I think that’s why we’ve decided to give the second album a title called Blessed, because we as a choir have received more than what we ever planned or even imagined in two years. We’ve received awards, we’ve performed at the 46664 concert with the world’s greatest stars, we’ve got our own charity foundation. It’s beyond –
David Mulovhedzi: In the end of course they feel like, Good lord we’re going to be a very religious people, you know, because music, as mentioned, that is a universal language, God does explain to people in our audience, that this is what’s happened. You know you feel that whatever they’re singing, you do understand it.
Rachael Kohn: Can you tell me about this song, Malaika?
David Mulovhedzi: Malaika is a very beautiful lady, whereby a young man is asking for the hand from his lady, ‘Malaika, I love you so much and I feel I should marry you. I don’t have money or anything’, because with Africans, what we do, we pay lobola, we call it lobola.
Rachael Kohn: Is that a dowry?
David Mulovhedzi: Yes, it’s like a dowry. ‘So I don’t have anything but the way I love you, Malaika, I want you to be my wife’. That’s all about the song, yes, it’s a love song.
SINGING – Malaika
Rachael Kohn: So Sipokazi, I suppose that you translate this for the audience?
Sipokazi Luzipo: That would be, Malaika, Malaika, Malaika, I love you, Malaika.
Rachael Kohn: You also perform another song for us, Noyana.
Sipokazi Luzipo: Oh yes, that’s a Xhosa song, and it means, Will you go to heaven?
Rachael Kohn: Tell me about that. What does it say.
Sipokazi Luzipo: That’s one of the songs that we got from our grandmothers. It’s a very old song. It’s in one of the old hymns, and after receiving the blessing as a choir, we all heard the question that we’re travelling the world so much and everything is so good, I wonder if we’re going to make it to heaven. So let’s prepare ourselves for that. And we felt that we should include our audiences in that, in asking them the question, Will you make it to heaven? All is good now, but let’s get our spirits and our souls ready, and not forget that it’s all not ending in this world, and there is another life.
Rachael Kohn: Well I hope we hear your voices in heaven, they certainly sound like they’re up there.
Sipokazi Luzipo: Thank you so much, God bless.
SINGING – Noyana
Rachael Kohn: I wonder how many voices you think were singing there. Only five members of the 26 voice Soweto Gospel Choir. Imagine what they sound like when they’re all together. There are still a couple of weeks left in their tour, including to Canberra, Frankston, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Bunbury, so why not have a great evening out and hear the music that’s lifted the souls of so many people.
And if you’d like to own their music, the Soweto Gospel Choir has two CDs out: Voices from Heaven and Blessed.