9 April 2006
A well-known South African proverb states “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which translates roughly as “a person is a person through other persons.” That maxim was exemplified in ringing four-part harmony Friday night as members of the mighty Soweto Gospel Choir rained their voices down upon a jubilant Symphony Hall.
While the majority of African cultures rely on the drum, South Africa has always carried its songs through the strength of its voices. It became clear early on that any of the 25 singers in the choir could easily demolish the competition on “American Idol,” but individual flair isn’t the South African way. It was when the choir joined together in goose-pimpling harmony that it became truly transcendent.
Parading onstage in colorful traditional garb, the choir began the night with a suite of traditional songs of praise, including the joyous pulse of “Thina Simnqobile” and the more meditative “Thapelo.” Even on the sober ballads, the choir proved a mass of whirling motion – hand-clapping, stomping and gesturing in perfect synchronicity. On the uptempo numbers, the men often dashed to the front of the stage to engage in some competitive Zulu kick-dancing.
Acknowledging the nation’s troubled apartheid past, the choir honored the heroes of the struggle with a medley beginning with Johnny Clegg’s Mandela tribute “Asimbonanga” and ending with Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.”
Four members of the ensemble boast instrumental skills, adding guitars, keys, drums and bass to the Afropop of “Ahuna Ya Tsawnang Le Jesu/Kammatla,” which even included a sprinkle of kwaito music (South Afica’s answer to hip-hop). Occasionally, the heavy synthesizers proved too syrupy, the contemporary electric elements drowning out the voices.
Throwing a bone to their American audience, the choir shouted through a handful of tunes most would recognize, including the now- commercialized to death “Mbube” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and a lovely if not entirely unsurprising rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The choir was at its finest and its most engaging when singing popular tunes from its own churches in Soweto, such as the dynamic and emotionally gripping “Tshepa Thapelo” and the triumphant shake of “Woza Meli Wami.”
For the final tune of its encore, the beloved choir put a South African spin on an American gospel standard, tearing into the jubilant “Oh Happy Day” and injecting a well-needed shot of Sowetan soul into the usually stuffy and highbrow Symphony Hall.