By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT
Lincoln Journal Star
Mar 23, 2007
Last month, the Soweto Gospel Choir won the traditional world music Grammy Award for “Blessed,” a recognition that both surprised and thrilled the 26-member South African group.
“We’re so excited about that,” said Sipokazi Luzipo, who serves as the choir’s narrator. “I’m so happy. It’s a payoff for all our hard work.”
The Grammy is also a recognition of the choir’s uplifting, harmony-filled mixture of traditional gospel numbers, Western pop and South African sounds. Powered by brilliant soloists and beautiful arrangements, the choir sings in six different languages, including Zulu and Afrikaans. Given the fact that South Africa has 11 languages, six isn’t that many, Luzipo said with a laugh.
And she said those who come to see the choir give one of its renowned performances Saturday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts needn’t worry about not understanding all the lyrics coming from the stage.
“Music is a universal language,” she said. “It reaches down to the heart and the soul, even though they don’t know the words. I think, just sit back and enjoy. There’s so much for them in our concert, so much going on on stage. Just sit down, listen to the sound and get into the music. You don’t need to understand all the words to get the feeling.”
That said, Luzipo said, the words the choir sings are important, regardless of the language or the musical style in which they are presented.
“Most of the time, it’s about the lyrics — what kind of message do the songs convey?” she said. “Can the choir carry that through the song?”
Those messages can be religious, exactly what is expected from gospel, but they also can be social, as on the choir’s cover of U2’s “One.” Recorded at the 46664 concert in South Africa, which was part of Nelson Mandela’s AIDS Awareness Campaign, “One” features Bono on a soaring lead vocal and is one of the most striking tracks on “African Spirit,” the group’s new album.
A testimony to the choir’s versatility, “African Spirit” leads into “One” with “Africa,” a traditional song down in the familiar South African township jive style, and also features covers of a pair of Bob Dylan songs, “I’ll Remember You” and “Forever Young,” along with the reggae gospel of “River of Babylon.”
Those combinations are brought together on “Avulekile Amasango/One Love,” with township jive melding into the Bob Marley classic and “Sitting in Limbo/This Little Light of Mine,” a combination of a Jimmy Cliff reggae number and the traditional gospel song.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has grown into a world music powerhouse in a relatively short period of time. It was created in 2002 by executive producer Beverly Bryer and David Mulovhedzi, who serves as the choir’s director. It’s first U.S. recording, “Voices From Heaven,” went to No. 1 on the Billboard World Music charts, and the group made its first triumphant
North American tour.
“Blessed” remains on the world music chart more than a year after its release, and it’s joined in the top 10 by “African Spirit,” an indicator of the choir’s popularity.
The choir is now in the middle of a 47-city U.S. tour that wraps up in Texas at the end of April. Every review of the choir’s concerts has been positive, and most are raves, praising the spirituality, joy and vibrancy of the performances that combine singing with some dancing.
The shows are put together in South Africa and well rehearsed before hitting the road, Luzipo said. And they’re just as joyous and uplifting for the performers as they are for the audience.
“For me, personally, I come from a Christian background,” she said. “Gospel is a big part of who we are as South Africans. For me, when I am on stage, it is a joy and a blessing. I love the kind of performances we do.”
Luzipo said that she hopes the audience takes a message away from Saturday’s concert that goes beyond the specifics of any song and touches on the culture and country that the singers call home.
“It will be a celebration of life from South Africa,” she said. “A celebration of life in South Africa after the liberation (from apartheid), of the beauty of South Africa, celebrating everything we’ve become. It is a really beautiful thing.”