By James D. Watts Jr.
5 February 2007
We take as our text for this morning the words of the psalmist, who writes in the 66th Psalm, verses 1 and 2:
“Make a joyful noise unto God, all the earth. Sing forth the glory of his name: make his praise glorious.”
We offer, in illustration of this exhortation, the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Brothers and sisters, those of you who, for whatever reason, found yourself unable to answer the call to come and hear this vocal ensemble from South Africa, which made its first visit to our fair city Saturday at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center — all we can say to you is, “Oh, what a glorious thing you missed.”
Because, my friends, what the Soweto Gospel Choir does is, at every level, nothing short of glorious.
The 25 members of this touring ensemble represent some of the finest singers of South Africa, representing a good portion of the many languages, cultures and faiths that today make up this ancient and storied land.
“It is this diversity,” said Sipokazi Luzipo, who served as the group’s principal spokeswoman, “that makes our country and our music so unique.”
That uniqueness comes from the effort to bring all these diverse elements together, to work toward a single and united purpose. And I tell you, brothers and sisters, that this ideal is perhaps best demonstrated in music.
When different notes on a musical scale come together in a way that is at once pleasing in its sweetness and satisfying in its beauty, that is called “harmony.” And harmony is a delicate and fragile thing. Let just a single voice be a fraction of a tone off the desired mark, and the crystalline purity of harmony is shattered.
Throughout Saturday evening’s performance, the Soweto Gospel Choir testified to the discipline needed to produce vocal harmony, and the heart-stopping beauty that can be had when two or more voices are joined together.
It was there in that single, final chord sounded by the men’s septet during the song “Thapelo,” in the intricate weaving of fugue-like lines by the seven women who sang “Izwi Lahlab’Inhlziyo Yami” (a melody that sounded a lot like the old hymn, “At Calvary”), and the energetic ensemble singing of just about everything else.
But harmony can take other forms, as well. Songs from other traditions — secular pop songs, political songs, religious hymns from other lands — can be transformed into something else, can be made to harmonize with another culture.
This was demonstrated in the choir’s distinctive way with the classic hymn “Amazing Grace”; how they integrated Bob Marley’s “One Love,” an anthem for an earthly utopia, with “Avulekile Amasango,” a song about the forgiveness of sins and the opening of the doors of heaven; turning the mournful anti-apartheid songs “Asimbonanga/Biko” into hymns of remembrance; in the child-like wonder and hope they gave to “World in Union,” one of the most spiritual and spirited uses of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” one may ever hear.
It was all a way, as Luzipo stated, “of honoring the past as we look toward future, in all things praising God.”
“Gospel” literally means “good news” — something that should give as much joy to the teller as the listener. That was certainly the lesson all those in attendance took away from this evening spent with the Soweto Gospel Choir.
One didn’t need to understand Zulu or Sotho or any of the other languages used to feel the joy and uplift of this music, and to agree with Luzipo that in praising the God who gives comfort and strength in times of trouble, mercy and peace in times of joy, “we are truly blessed.”
Amen to that. Here endeth the lesson.