28 March 2007
The human voice is capable of amazing things but you have to wonder if something special comes from singers who have weathered great struggles to find liberation.
Whatever the reason, it was impossible not to be moved by the two dozen voices of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir when they strolled out to quickly win over a crowd of 1,300-plus at the Winspear Centre on Tuesday.
For most of two generous sets they numbered two dozen singers, men in the back row, women in front, usually with just a couple of hand drummers to one side, all of them dressed in vibrant costumes. And man, did they swing, essentially dancing in place as they belted out a program of traditional African hymns, chants, soul ballads, campfire classics and American gospel favourites in Zulu, Sotho, English and French.
When all your “instruments” come from the same well it’s important to set the right pacing in concert and Soweto Gospel Choir had that mapped out, alternating one, two or three solo singers on each song, or sometimes a small section, setting varied tempos, sometimes stitching one tune to another.
The second number, an original in Zulu, was the first to really set a heightened pulse as everyone aped the evil one (the devil), miming horns at their ears but roaring with good vibes. While potent rhythms are implicit in much of the choir’s material, there’s still a surprisingly strong melodic component to their arrangements. Unlike their compatriots Ladysmith Black Mambazo who almost always sing in pulse, SGC uses the presence of percussionists to allow greater freedom on the vocal front.
They can also pack a harmonic surprise in covering contemporary classics too. Halfway through the first set when they melded Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga to Peter Gabriel’s Biko, the latter song was completely reharmonized for a less sombre feel, more uplifting key that whispered out in a subtle finish. Ditto for the take on Bob Marley’s One Love, the first number in the show to use a real band backup of synthesizer, electric guitar, bass and set drums, set to the beat of mbaqanga township jive. An example of South African kwaito (hip-hop) tumbled out before Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) made a cool end to the first half.
A short dance feature saw two men and two women kicking up their heels — way up — with acrobatic applomb to open the second set. Then director Lucas Bok led the choir in a short example rehearsal, showing how they change the same verses to higher and higher keys.
A strangely urgent Khumbaya led to an epic Amazing Grace with four separate solo singers featured up front, and then, Swing Down Sweet Chariot sung closer to American gospel style.
All this led to a round of audience participation on the finale, and an exit for deadlines, but for anyone leaving this show it was hard not to hum with joy.