By Jennifer Odell
March 1, 2007
Jamaica meets in South Africa in ‘Avulekile Amasango/ One Love’New York City’s Zankel Hall lit up the night of February 23 with the 26 voices that make up the Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir, a jubilant group of singers whose message of love and unity reflects the ideals behind many of Bob Marley’s songs.
“One of our goals is to unite people,” said Lucas Bok, the group’s music director, bassist and assistant choir master, a few hours before show time. “So we share that vision and that dream with the music of Bob Marley. We don’t know how to reason and that has caused a lot of havoc. People don’t believe in each other. People are good creatures, but our opinions and all of this stuff has just made us crazy. So this music is meant to bring people together.”
The choir is certainly making strides towards that goal. By incorporating nine different languages and music from around the world into their repertoire, the group educates its audience about other cultures while providing familiarity that helps draw listeners in. Their win for Best Traditional World Music Album at this year’s Grammy Awards solidified their reputation as global ambassadors of musical unity. And the group is also keenly aware of the ongoing problems at home, having spent four years raising money for Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, the foundation for orphans with AIDS that they founded in 2003. It’s at their performance, however, that their ability to create unity through music really shines.
Throughout the night at Zankel Hall, dozens of bright yellow, blue, green, pink and red costumes moved in tandem while the singers belted out riveting multi-part harmonies. The audience eventually gave up their seats to move to the music and sing along to the songs they recognized-including “One Love.” The second track on the choir’s latest album, African Spirit, pairs a South African song, “Avulekile Amasango,” with the Marley classic. According to Bok, 29, the progression from the first song, which urges listeners to “open the doors of heaven,” to “One Love” came quite naturally.
“The only way that we can get to heaven is through love because God is love,” he said, explaining how the concepts behind the two songs fit together. The music, itself, blended easily as well. “First, we changed the groove of ‘Avulekile Amasango’ and put our own thing in because musically, we knew were we were heading to the reggae style,” he said. “It was a challenge and our executive producer was only going to accept it if it worked. But the choir got together and it came out perfectly, just like that.”
Since 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has been combining spirituals and musical concepts from Africa, Europe and the Americas into a joyful expression that’s earned them fans and collaborators as diverse as Bono, who guest starred on their new album, Jimmy Cliff and Diana Ross. And while they continue to incorporate a wide variety of styles into their music, their latest album deals explicitly with something that also concerned Bob Marley-the African spirit.
“We’ve been liberated now for 12 years now,” Bok explained. “And if you look at what’s happening now around the world, there seems to be no hope and nothing positive. But we’ve got something to live for and our spirits are so uplifted that we’re trying to bring that to the world. And that’s what we define as the African spirit.”
Zanele Mkhwanazi, a lead vocalist who sang a number of the evening’s solos, agrees. “Songs like ‘Ke Na Le Modisa’ talk about the dream that we have as Africans,” she said. “We’re trying to take it all back together and go to the world and share our own dream and our own spirit in an African way so our African spirit can just come out.”
While much of Marley’s music was inspired by the ongoing struggle for freedom in Jamaica, the Soweto Gospel Choir saw their country succeed in overcoming apartheid. They continue to celebrate this achievement through their music. Though Marley may not have lived to see his ideals translate into tangible political success, the concepts he brought to the fore in his songs continue to ring true for people of different faiths and in different countries.
“I believe that if the people in the world can band together, there will be peace,” said Mkhwanazi. “That is the same dream as what is in Bob Marley’s music in that where there’s unity there’s peace. Where people are united, there’s love.”