24 February 2006
The Salt Lake Tribune
When David Mulovhedzi, the founder of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir, says “music is the universal language,” it sounds more like a fervent belief than a clich.
But then, Mulovhedzi (pronounced Mul-low-vet-zee) and the 26 members of his choir have a better perspective on the power of music than most. First, it helped them remain spiritually strong through the era of apartheid in their home country. And when Mulovhedzi united the best gospel singers from churches throughout the Soweto township in 2002, it helped them see the world: The Soweto Gospel Choir became ambassadors of a style that owes nearly as much to American gospel music as to traditional African sounds.
“During that time of [apartheid], the gospel choirs have always been singing,” Mulovhedzi said in a recent interview. “Gospel music is music that heals the broken spirit. Gospel music is the healing song. So even during those days, we helped out quite a number of people to be very, very strong, and here we are today . . . and we are happy. And now the Soweto Gospel Choir is moving around the world preaching the same type of message, that God gave us love, so we must love one another.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir sings in six of the 11 “official” languages of South Africa, including English, Zulu Xhoso and Sotho, and the group’s performances and two American albums – 2005’s “Voices from Heaven” and the new “Blessed” – are dotted with American gospel songs like “Amazing Grace,” “Oh Happy Day” and “Swing Down.” Mulovhedzi said American gospel “plays a very important role to most Christians around South Africa,” so it’s natural that his choir would delve into a style of music that started as a way to lift the spirits of slaves taken from Africa to America.
B. Murphy directs gospel choirs in Ogden and Salt Lake City and teaches workshops on gospel music, including how gospel transcends boundaries. The way an African group like the Soweto Gospel Choir used gospel songs to “heal the broken spirit” under apartheid is similar to how American gospel singers used the music to fulfill a “need for a sense of hope” during the era of slavery, he said.
“If you trace the evolution of gospel music, it’s very easy to do,” Murphy said. “Music was pretty much the language of slaves. As time went on, it went from the language of slaves to some of the spiritual music that you hear, which really was the music of hope, hope of better things to come. Something had to be better than slavery. So, of course, when we began to embrace Christianity, that music was able to transcend into more jubilant types of expressions. Which is what has ultimately evolved into what we know as gospel music today.”
“Jubilant” might be the perfect word to describe a live performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir. The diversity of voices among the singers, ranging in age from 18 to about 40, is stunning, a powerful amalgam of sound that needs little in the way of accompaniment or amplification. And much as in American gospel, the songs volley between solo singers and emphatic responses by the rest of the choir.
Combine those voices with a brightly colored wardrobe and energetic dancing and you get a concert experience that few other acts, gospel or otherwise, can offer.
“The movement is something out of this world, and that’s the way we praise God in South Africa,” Mulovhedzi said. “That’s the way we do it, and we feel so happy when we do that because now we feel we’ve really praised our Lord.
“When we sing and we start dancing, people [in the audience] stand up and try to do the dancing. And that’s lovely, we really like that. Music is the universal language. Even if you don’t know the language [of a song] itself, you can see by the body movement that it is meaningful.”