By Liam Otten
February 3, 2006
The Soweto Gospel Choir — an all-star “super group” drawn from churches and congregations in and around Soweto, South Africa — will give a rare U.S. concert at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 as part of the Edison Theatre OVATIONS! Series.
Before the arrival of Western religion, traditional African music was largely rooted in song and percussion. Music ranging from praise songs to the rites of the traditional healer (secular music was largely nonexistent) typically followed a call-and-response form, with each tribal group boasting its own distinctive style.
Yet as Christian missionaries arrived in Africa in the early 19th century, mission schools became a major source of education, including musical training. Today, gospel music permeates the fabric of southern Africa, home to more than 5,000 independent Christian churches, many of which hold services in the open air.
Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 when David Mulovhedzi, now music director and choirmaster, and executive producer Beverly Byer, held auditions for the very best singers in Mulovhedzi’s own Holy Jerusalem Choir, various Soweto churches and the general public.
Today the group features 26 singers, aged 16-40, as well as dancers, musicians and drummers. They perform a vibrant mix of African gospel, popular songs, folk anthems and traditional Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho spirituals.
Soweto Gospel Choir has toured extensively both in Africa and elsewhere overseas. Its many honors include the 2003 American Gospel Music Award for Best Choir of the Year; Australia’s prestigious Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music Concert; and a South African Music Award nomination.
Last year’s Voices From Heaven, the group’s debut CD, reached the top of Billboard’s world music chart. Blessed, their acclaimed follow-up, was released earlier this month.
The New York Times calls Soweto Gospel Choir “Meticulous and unstoppable … spirited and spectacular,” while the Sunday Herald of Scotland notes that “you don’t have to be a believer to be inspired.”
In addition to performing, Soweto Gospel Choir works to support the local communities from which its members are drawn. In August 2003, the choir established its own charity foundation, “Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani” (meaning “to arise, do something!”), which raises funds for AIDS orphans.
In November 2003, the group shared the stage with Bono, Peter Gabriel, the Eurythmics and others at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Concert in Cape Town. That event helped launch a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the devastating impact of AIDS in Africa.