By Tony Backhouse
23 August 2005
It’s overwhelming visually and aurally: the engaging tenor soloist is one thing, but he’s flanked by two athletic dancers who also claim your attention, the choir is whooping powerfully while dancing behind them – and now an alto soloist swings out to join the tenor in a vocal dialogue …
The Soweto Gospel Choir is a highly disciplined ensemble. This is not your average South African church choir, but a show, with choreography and stage business; a spectacle that says “rejoice”. The conducting was minimal: with a few exceptions, the choir just got on with it while director David Mulovhedzi seemed content to maintain a warm and dignified presence at the end of the row. His assistant MD Lucas Deon Bok, however, was a ball of fire, playing bass, singing high tenor and grooving, and I would guess he was responsible for the more contemporary repertoire and the brief nod to hip-hop.
Mostly a cappella, often joined by hand percussion, and sometimes boosted by bass, guitar, kit and keyboard, the repertoire’s focus shifted constantly: traditional South African gospel songs like “Joko Yahao” (with soloist Sibongile Makgathe, sounding like Shirley Caesar); a vigorous a cappella chant “Masigiye’Bo”; an iscathimiya song “Lelilungelo Ngelakho”; or more formal pieces like “Oluwa”. Obvious choices like “Mbube” or “O Happy Day” sounded freshly minted, and “Khumbaya” was reborn brilliantly as a soul groove. However, they missed the point with “I Bid You Goodnight”. It was sung sweetly by all the male members, with Shimmy Jiyane on an impeccable lead, but it was no longer the moving “lowering down” funeral song, rather a bloodless if charming pop spiritual.
Maybe the choir could have involved us more had they given translations or hints of the content of the South African songs, but the glorious polyphony and rhythm alone stir you and lift you.
The Soweto Gospel Choir is touring nationally.