9 March 2007
Since hitting the world stage four years age, the Soweto Gospel Choir has been hailed as the most exciting group to emerge from South Africa since Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Touring for nearly nine months a year, the group literally has become a goodwill ambassador to the world.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was created in 2002. Members are drawn from churches in the title township outside of Johannesburg, where so much of the anti-apartheid movement was centered. Last month, the choir won its first Grammy Award for its second album, “Blessed.”
“This just came out of nowhere,” choir member Sipokazi Luzipo said, gleefully. “We were happy with the nomination and never expected to win. For us, it was a payoff for all the hard work.”
Clad in traditional costumes and singing in six South African dialects including English, Zulu and Sotho, the choir with members ranging in age from 23-47 is in the midst of its fifth U.S. tour.
One listen to the choir’s latest disc, “African Spirit,” demonstrates the crossover appeal of this dynamic group. Not only are there South African gospel songs filled with the country’s traditional sound, but these melodies also transform renditions of songs by Bob Dylan, Bono, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Popular spirituals “Rivers of Babylon,” “Balm of Gilead” and “Hosanna” fill out the song list.
Everything the choir sings is based in the ebullient, uplifting sound of South African gospel, which feeds a country filled with diverse cultures speaking 11 official languages. In a land of 18,000 churches, music is the language of expression in all the passages of life.
“We’ve got jazz and we’ve got hip-hop,” Luzipo said. “But gospel is the biggest because during apartheid there was always one place where people knew they could go to find God. It’s a very special country, and gospel is a very big part of what the nation is about.”
The choir’s honey-toned harmonies, rich interwoven vocal textures and driving rhythmic patterns have been heard across the world from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Australia’s Sydney Opera House. The group also serves as an ambassador for 46664, an organization that helps those affected by the AIDS pandemic in South Africa.
Music director David Mulovhedzi and producer Beverly Bryer knew they had something special after holding auditions in 2002. Luzipo joined the choir when she was 19. Now 23, a lead singer and spokeswoman for the troupe, she has never doubted her decision to dedicate her time to the music that has become a universal language for everyone in the choir as they travel the world.
“Even if you don’t understand what the songs mean, you can feel them in your heart,” Luzipo said. “Both the choir and the audience is truly blessed by this joyous, uplifting music.”