18 February 2007
When one wins an award as prestigious as a Grammy, instant international stardom is expected. You would expect to become an A-list celebrity rubbing shoulders with the who’s who, picking and choosing your concerts – not to mention being entitled to stake your appearance fee, no matter how high.
Not so for the Soweto Gospel Choir – who took everyone by surprise when they won the Best Traditional World Music Award for their album Blessed at this year’s 49th Grammy Awards. All they want is to increase their profile among their own countrymen, says Beverly Bryer, the executive producer and brains behind the choir.
“We are known less here in the country than abroad. This award will definitely get South Africans interested in the band,” said Bryer, who had just returned from the award ceremony in Los Angeles last Sunday.
“Our publicist says that she is receiving more than 50 calls a day from South African people congratulating us – something that has never happened before. I haven’t even opened my e-mails but I know that my mail is already flooded. My phone has also not stopped ringing from locals requesting us to come perform at their functions,” she said.
One of these locals is Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa, who has invited the choir to sing at his state of the province address tomorrow. One might start pointing fingers and accuse the South African public of yet again not appreciating local talent – as happened with Grammy award-winning band Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who are more loved and worshipped abroad then at home.
But this time the public could be excused for not knowing about this choir, as it was originally formed to perform as a touring band.
Although they have toured the world non-stop for the past five years, they have rarely performed at home, and even then only at top exclusive national events for former and present statesmen.
The choir is currently touring the United States and will only be back in the country in April. They were not even able to attend the Grammy awards as they were performing in Georgia. It was left to musical directors Robin Hogarth, Lucas Bok, David Mulovhedzi and Bryer to represent the group at the Grammies.
“When they called out our name it felt so unreal. We all went up on stage to say our thank you speeches in disbelief. After that we started phoning the choir members who were preparing to go on stage for their show in Georgia. I haven’t stopped pinching myself since – and I have got the bruises to prove that,” said Bryer.
Formed in 2002, the 26-strong choir group drew on the talent from the many churches in and around Soweto to revive traditional gospel music. They favour the a cappella style that was dying out due to the invasion of an American soul-influenced gospel sound.
Bryer, who had been living in Australia for 10 years, was approached by Australian promoters to bring a South African group to perform at the Melbourne Festival in 2002 after the successful performance of the musical drama group uMoja. “Australia fell in love with the South African sound. They told us that they wanted us to assemble a South African choir comprising the best singers within three months,” said Bryer.
Bryer turned to her South African contact, Mulovhedzi, who was in touch with the local singers and who had a feel for traditional South African music. He put in a few calls and within days auditions were held Yeoville. In a month they had released their first album titled Voices from Heaven. Two months later they were off on their first tour in Australia, which was sold out. From they went on to perform in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they were one of the top three best-selling acts out of 1 600 performers.
“This was when I realised that we were going to hit the big time. I was a bit sceptical given the haste in which we arranged the group. But our job was made so much easier due to the amazing talent and commitment,” said Bryer.
From then on the group went on to win the category of Best Gospel Choir at the American Gospel music awards and an Australian Performing Arts Award in 2003. They have since performed throughout the world with top musicians such as Diana Ross, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé Knowles, with whom they shared a stage at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concerts as patrons of his Aids foundation.
The group sings Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho gospel songs, which they usually also narrate in English in a show that could be classified as a drama musical. Such was the success of the group that they were forced to expand and they are now essentially two choirs with one group touring while the rest staying home.
Bryer was already back in South Africa on Tuesday night to ensure that rehearsals for the singers back home were on schedule. They are due to perform at the Confederation of African Football awards in Ghana later this month.
One of the group members, Thando Jiyane, was thrilled with the victory. She has been with the group since it started. Jiyane, who did not go on the US tour because she is heavily pregnant, heard the good news from her husband Shimmy, the choir’s choreographer, who is currently on tour with the group in the US.
“He phoned at midnight. I went crazy and started phoning the other group members. We awoke the whole of Soweto and the township has been partying ever since.
“When we walk down the streets of Soweto wearing our choir’s t-shirts everyone is stopping to congratulate us, including those who never wanted to take notice of what we were doing,” said Jiyane.
She also believes that this award will help dispel the notion that Soweto is only famous for producing tsotsis. “This award has taken Soweto to another level. It will help bring back the respect for our location, especially since this was not an award for a kwaito or sexually explicit R ’n B album but because it was an award for gospel music.
“The key to our success is originality. We are more Africanised as opposed to going the western style. We have revived traditional gospel songs that were sung by our grandmothers. I think our rawness is what drives the international audience wild. It is not about them understanding what we are saying but feeling what we are saying.”
The group will be doing a South African tour later this year.
“The Grammy award shows that we have hit the overseas market. Now it’s time for us to hit the local market and reach out to as many South Africans as possible. This South African tour will help us achieve that,” said Jiyane.
Bryer added: “At the end of the day we represent South Africa – this is South African talent on stage, so it is important that our own people become proud and share in the achievements of their choir.”