By Chris Thomson
August 30, 2005
Long Live Africa
I support two rugby teams – the Australian Wallabies, and anybody who plays South Africa’s Springboks. Last Saturday night at Subiaco Stadium, in the Western Australian city of Perth, my two teams merged into one. I fumed from my Subiaco seat as the Springboks beat the Wallabies by two measly points. During the blur of the post-game wake, I caught the flu.
A week later, the flu lingers. My ears and nostrils feel like they’re jammed with drying concrete. I should be in bed. But I’m perched in the sixth row of Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre, waiting to see another South African export – THE SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR – play.
Soweto stands for ‘South West Town’. During the apartheid era, Soweto gained worldwide notoriety for the poverty of its black people relative to that of the white people in adjacent Johannesburg.
Perth, where the choir is about to play its third and penultimate night, is also a southwest town. It’s in Southwest Australia, and the closest Australian metropolis to Africa.
There are lots of African faces here among the full house. As the lights dim, a whistle trills from the balcony to the stage. A Zulu call from behind me is met by a response from the front row. An African voice on the P.A. reminds patrons to turn off their cellular phones, and that after the show, choir members will be collecting money for South African children orphaned by HIV-AIDS.
Then, BAM! Stage-lights destroy the dark, and bongos begin to bang. Before me, 25 black South Africans, robed in all the colours of the rainbow, launch into a full-on gospel number called Oluwa.
The choir is all movement, sound and colour. The singers’ robes billow in unison back and forward across the stage, like swells across the ocean that divides the choir’s home and host countries. The choir’s vigour fills the length and breadth of the stage, like brushstrokes on a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Each singer injects the precision choreography with individual spontaneity. Every shape of human is on display – from petite Ms Lehakwe Tlali whose haunting soprano crackles like fire across ice, to Mr Shimmy Jiyane whose stocky frame belies a cat-like agility.
Shimmy is an enigma. Robust, yet his athletic leg-swings are so compact. An angel’s soprano seeps from his lips. In contrast, the bass voice of Vusumuzi Madondo rumbles around the theatre at odds with his tall, slender body. Where Shimmy hovers around the stage, Madondo’s frame overshadows it as he chinks and swerves in perfect time to the music.
The choir attacks each song with religious zeal. Like the Springboks last weekend, the choir leaves nothing in the dressing room. There’s no space for slackers, and each member is an all-rounder. If you can’t sing and dance forget about it. To guarantee a spot on this team, odds are you’ll also need to play an instrument.
Take Assistant Musical Director/Choir Master Lucas Deon Bok. This tiny man is the troupe’s on-stage conductor. He sings tenor, never stands still, and plays bass guitar on some of the band’s more bluesy numbers. Add to this the comedic timing of a silent film star, and you have the complete entertainment package.
As ambassadors for a diverse country, the choir switches between the four major languages spoken in South Africa. Right now, they’re demonstrating one of their practice techniques – repeating a short tune in ever-rising octaves. They began with a solemn English rendition, during which I managed to curb a coughing fit that did not impress the lady sitting to my right. The choir then loosened up through several languages, to Zulu where they’re at now. The emotion of singing in their native tongue cannot be contained as the singers swivel from side to side. Oh yes, for good measure on the way to Zulu, they slipped into a fifth lingo – that well-known pan-African lingua franca of Italian!
Shimmy Jiyane and bongo player Bongumusa Mabaso have just whipped Kangol beanies from the pockets of their baggy pants. Mic’s in hand, they’ve started skipping ‘round the stage, and now they’re giving the global language of hip-hop an airing.
While to this point, the Soweto play-list has been dominated by traditional gospel pieces, popular anthems including One Love, Khumbuya, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight have received the choir’s energetic treatment.
Fiercely proud of the nation that’s emerged from the ashes of apartheid, the choir announces the concert will end with a rendition of South Africa’s multilingual national anthem. Which is, of course, a novel way to ensure a standing ovation. But nobody here begrudges that. With two hours of non-stop dance, 24 pulsating songs, and 2 encores behind them, the choir has everyone clapping, chanting and crying for more. Who cares about last week’s rugby? I’m thoroughly energised, and aside from a tickle in my throat, my flu has evaporated.