Soweto Gospel Choir entertains the world
The choir has backed rock stars such as Queen and Bono
March 29, 2007
The Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa will perform at the Queen Elizabeth theatre at 8 p. m. on Saturday. The choir has visited 47 North American cities in less than three months and has won a Grammy for their CD Blessed.
Africa’s history with gospel music began with the earliest contact of European missionaries and churches, the Africans quickly absorbing their religious music and blending it with their own local traditions.
A continuation of this would be the Soweto Gospel Choir, a 25-member group of singers mostly in their 20s. The group formed in 2002 and has gone on to multiple sell-out tours across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, including two tours of North America (this is their third and will take three months). They’ve been to Vancouver once before.
On a previous 35-city tour they sold out a show at Carnegie Hall six months in advance. They sold out virtually all their other appearances as well. The Soweto Gospel Choir is now being hailed as one of South Africa’s most exciting new finds.
The choir, which sings African gospel, has backed rock stars such as Queen, Peter Gabriel, Anastacia, Jimmy Cliff, the Eurythmics and Bono, and sang happy birthday to archbishop Desmond Tutu when he celebrated his 75th birthday in South Africa. They’ve also sung for South African President Thabo Mbeki and former U.S. president Bill Clinton on their 2005 tour.
Perhaps their most memorable performance was before former South African president Nelson Mandela and other international figures in 2003 as part of the 46664 AIDS benefit concert (46664 was Mandela’s prison number).
The choir, which has won three international awards (including the 2003 American Gospel Music Award for best international choir), was created in 2002 by South African executive producer Beverly Bryer and musical director David Mulovhedzi. They held auditions in Soweto to round up an aggregate of the best singers from Mulovhedzi’s own Holy Jerusalem Choir, various Soweto churches and the public.
They are very impressive, to go by their new, third CD, called African Spirit: full-voiced, explosive with energy and in possession of the most resonant basses in material ranging from African call-and-response to, well, soft rock. Soloists such as Rebecca Nyamane and Sibongile Makgathe could give Aretha Franklin a run for her money.
The album is sung in Zulu, Sotho and English (there are 11 languages in South Africa and the choir sings in six of them). The singers are also the instrumentalists and some of them dance too in a program that is as bright visually as it is vocally.
We spoke to assistant musical director Lucas Bok in Goshen, Indiana as the choir was preparing for a concert. In addition to his directing role, the talented 30 year old is the choir master, a tenor soloist and bass guitarist.
He says he was introduced to music by his father, a guitarist. By age seven, he was playing bass guitar, later moving on to acoustic guitar and joining a church choir. He also writes music and plays piano and percussion. In 1999 Bok worked as music director of the Berea Christian Tabernacle, which he says helped him grow both as a musician and a composer.
Today he couldn’t be happier travelling the world, doing what he does best. While Bok admits touring 47 North American cities in less than three months can be exhausting, he says the group manages to “put aside their personal feelings” to focus on the music.
“We work really hard,” he explains.
Their passion hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Soweto Gospel Choir won a Grammy this year for their album, Blessed.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bok reflects. “To have accomplished so much in just four years.”
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MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The Soweto Gospel Choir, centred in Johannesburg, South Africa, founded its own AIDS orphan foundation in 2003 called Nkosi’s Haven Vukani (vukani meaning “wake up, do something,” as choir member Lucas Bok explains.)
This was set up to support families and organizations that receive little or no government support.
In just the past year, the choir members have fed more than 3,000 children in South Africa, assisted with funerals, paid for the schooling of two young men and provided funds for food and specialized therapies.
The choir also raises money for The Nkosi Johnson Aids Foundation, which raises AIDS awareness in South Africa and provides residential care for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS and AIDS orphans.