By Dean Bevan
February 17, 2006
South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir drew a large audience Wednesday evening to the Lied Center, with members singing and dancing their way through more than two dozen songs. Occasionally in English, but mostly in Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa, the lyrics needed no translation to convey the joy and the energy of this group.
Director/choirmaster David Mulovhedzi sang with his choir, only occasionally stepping out front to direct. The choir’s ability to sing complex and fast-paced a cappella works without his baton is a testament to the work he has done in shaping this fine group. He was aided by assistant choirmaster Lucas Bok, who also played bass guitar, served as a lead singer and (like Mulovhedzi) composed and arranged some of the music on the program.
The characteristic musical format of the evening consisted of one or more (sometimes four) lead singers in each number, with the rest of the choir providing a background. Often the leads and choir exchanged phrases in a call-and-response pattern; at other times the choir maintained a soft harmony behind vigorous solos from the leads. The vocal quality of the choir and its lead singers was consistently extremely bright, the most distinctive and characteristic sound of this group. Drums provided much of the evening’s accompaniment, with keyboard, guitar and bass stepping in from time to time.
Although all members of the ensemble were dancers in their own right, eight of this 26-member group were designated in the program as “dancers,” and their agility and energy astonished the audience again and again. The African high-kick and stamp was a specialty, but they seemed also to have mastered every other conceivable step, from a Michael Jackson moonwalk to a ’20s jitterbug. Choreographer Shimmy Jiyane’s hand was visible both in these dance routines (and in his own brilliant footwork), and in the never-ceasing, always-synchronized rhythmic movement of the whole choir.
The group performed several songs that were familiar to the audience. Some of these were African, such as “Khumbaya” and “Mbube” (the latter better known as “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). Others ranged from Bob Marley’s composition of “One Love” to American spirituals like “Swing Down” to a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The visual element was not neglected, especially in the brightly colored costumes. For the first group of songs, from their recent “Blessed” CD, both men and women wore vivid tunics; after intermission the women returned in neon-bright skirts and turbans, the men in equally colorful vests. Dramatic lighting also kept the stage awash in color.
As the last bars of “The Holy City” ended the concert, the audience rose as one in a true standing ovation, which the choir accepted graciously and repaid with two rocking encores, including a prolonged, band-backed “Oh Happy Day” that kept the audience on its feet and clapping along as choir members danced down the aisles and back, shaking hands and smiling.
The band finally played the choir off the stage, still dancing, or the audience would have stayed all night.