May 21, 2006
Ruda Landman (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘In November 2002, a Welsh choir – booked for a tour of 30 concerts in Australia – pulled out three months before opening night; theatres had been booked, deposits had been paid. Andrew Kay, the Australian promoter, saw a very big pack of cards in danger of collapsing.’
Andrew Kay (Promoter/Producer): ‘Well, it meant that we had a major tour of Australia without an act and that was a bit of a worry.’
Ruda: ‘So what did you do?’
Andrew: ‘Well we are Australian, so we blithely said, ‘we’ll create a choir… it can’t be that hard’.’
Well not when you have a little help from your friends, like Pastor David Mulovhedzi who led a church choir in Soweto, and Bev Bryer, an events co-ordinator. It was Bev Andrew phoned when he got into this fix.
Bev Bryer (Executive Producer): ‘I was driving to work one day when I got this phone call: ‘Oh Bev, we have got this wonderful idea we want you to form a gospel choir’. And he said. ‘we’ve got dates in Australia in three months’ time, can you do it?’
Andrew: ‘Well, she wasn’t completely convinced, but by the end of the phone call she was [there] saying yes.’
Bev: ‘I phoned David and I said, ‘Can we do it? Can we get a choir together in three months?’ He said, ‘Yes of course we can’ – and we did.’
Ruda: ‘But you only had three months?’
David Mulovhedzi (Musical Director): ‘Yes, we only had three months.’
Ruda: ‘Weren’t you worried that you wouldn’t get it done?’
David: ‘With the experience I’ve got from Gospel, we’ll definitely make it.’
What Bev and David did was simply put the word out. Two weeks later 32 young singers were auditioned and all were signed up.
Walter Intombela: ‘The first time I heard about the auditions I said, ‘I am going for it. I know I can make it’.’
Thando Ngqunge: ‘When I heard about auditions I just wanted to grab the opportunity because I had just graduated from high school and I knew I had the talent. I was just hoping I would be lucky somehow… that some great producer would see me. And by luck that was Bev.’
Andrew meanwhile urgently needed to publicise the tour and so, before they were even a fully formed choir, he flew out to South Africa
Andrew: I think for the first audition David brought along some costumes from a previous show that he had done. We threw costumes on some of the cast that we had found, took a quick photo, and within four days that photo was in Australian newspapers announcing this choir that had never actually rehearsed.’
Bev: We knew we had to record a CD in a month to get it ready for Australia. And then when we saw them all get together, we just got goose bumps… you can’t not. And I always remember him coming to me afterwards and saying, ‘ Bev, I think we’ve got something special’. And we just knew it, we just knew it.’
Ruda: ‘Within three months the brand new Soweto Gospel Choir set off for Australia. It was a sell out, collecting rave reviews along the way. The CD they had recorded ‘ Voices of Heaven’ went to number one on the Billboard World Music charts.’
Andrew: ‘Not only that… did we sell tickets… but the choir were unbelievably wonderful. How does that happen? … from no choir, to one of the world’s great choirs in four months. That is extraordinary. I have always thought that this is a whole project that has been guided by angels. I am not particularly religious, but I believe that there has been a hand involved in this because everything we have ever done with the Soweto Gospel Choir has worked.’
Performing at the Sydney Opera House, for a choir who had never even performed at Johannesburg’s Civic, was an all time high.
David: ‘It was a very successful tour because I remember when we had to sing at the Sydney Opera House we thought this was great. It was a sold out show and we really enjoyed ourselves. And the audience really enjoyed our music.’
Thembisa Khuzwayo: ‘The beauty inside yourself, the feeling you get when you stand upon that stage. And they didn’t even know us. You know, in South Africa it is difficult when people don’t even know who you are. Honestly you can’t go anywhere. And the concert hall was filled to capacity and we knew we were on the right track.’
Ruda: ‘What did it feel like?’
Fikile Sidumo: ‘I was nervous the first time. I was nervous because I had never been on tour. I thought I was going to fall down.’
Ruda: ‘Practice sessions often take place in David’s garage in Soweto and many of the choir members started out right here.’
And for most of the choir Soweto was the extent of their world, before their leap to fame. Now they’re hardly home. They have toured Germany, Asia, South America, Bermuda. They’ve played the Edinburgh Festival twice, the Royal Festival Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York.
Andrew: ‘In a week’s time we play Carnegie Hall for the second time. We have already been booked for a third year in a row, so we are almost breaking a record now. The Carnegie Hall does not normally bring an act back every year; well they have just booked us for a third year in a row. This is a world choir.’
Godfrey Nene: ‘When we went to Germany it was cold, you know, every day it was cold.’
Thando: ‘In Germany it was hard to get chicken. We went to the supermarket and we were like ‘chicken?’ And they said, ‘What?’ We go ‘chicken [imitating a chicken]’ …because we didn’t know what to say’.’
Demand for their voices has been so great that the choir of 36 has expanded to 50. That in effect makes two choirs [that] can tour simultaneously. It also gives the singers time to relax and rehearse between gigs.
Ruda: ‘How has the choir changed your lives in practical ways?’
Godfrey: ‘When we are in Soweto, they go: ‘that is the guy who sings in the Soweto Gospel Choir’. We are now celebrities around Soweto and the town. And like, girls wearing the T-shirt come up and say ‘Hi, are you from the Soweto Gospel Choir? You sing very nice’. So we are like celebrities now.’
Ruda: ‘The choir has brought fame and fortune to its members and they are stars in their home town. But it matters more to them that it is a job and an income. Although almost all of them are still in their twenties, they are often the sole supporters of their families.’
Warren Mahlangu: ‘I am the bread winner at home. So I have to make sure that I put bread on the table and that everything is fine. I don’t want them to have the experience I had.’
Godfrey: ‘Buy my family clothes… supporting my family, it is nice.’
Thembisa: ‘My family depends on me quite heavily for everything. So with the salary I make it a really long way.’
And it doesn’t stop with family. The members of the Soweto Gospel Choir have adopted Nkosi’s Haven, the children’s AIDS orphanage as their charity. After each show they ask for donations from the audience. To date they’ve raised 280 000 dollars – about 1.8 million rand.
Ruda: ‘Why take on the charity work?’
Andrew: ‘Because this is a gospel choir. This is a choir that should be doing the right thing. This is a personal decision; they don’t have to do it, and they do it freely, happily and with great pride.’
Ruda: ‘The sound of the choir has had a magical effect on international audiences. They have been interviewed on chat shows like the Conan O’Brien and the Today Show. People call them the South African phenomenon.’
Ruda: ‘What makes them so special?’
Andrew: ‘It may be hard for a South African to understand, but South Africa is an extraordinary country, beloved by the world. Because you survived… because this country survived against every odd, and it survives and it lives today, and it gets stronger every day. That is what they are paying tribute to. They are paying tribute to the music and they are paying tribute to the country.’
Bev: ‘I think this whole experience for us over the last three and a half years is seeing the confidence and also watching them develop musically. When we first started, I would say with David, ‘This is how we are going to do the show – these are the songs’. Now, three years later, they are almost saying to me, ‘Bev, this is how we’re doing it’.’
They’ve also expanded from Gospel into different singing styles. At Mandela’s 46664 Concert in 2003, the Soweto Gospel Choir backed – amongst others – Bono, Queen, the Eurythmics. They were very much in their element.
Bev: ‘Last night they performed for Bill Clinton at Little Rock and the governor and they are flying back today in his private jet to join the tour.’
David: ‘I never dreamt at some stage it would end up being like this. To me it is a dream come true.’
Thembisa: ‘Soweto Gospel Choir is growing from strength to strength. And lots of young South Africans are getting the opportunity to not only explore their talents, but take care of their families and make their own dreams come true in their own way. So I hope as well that the choir may go from strength to strength for everyone.’