30 March 2007
The Globe and Mail
South African singer Sipokazi Luzipo has become a nomad: She spends more than nine months of every year on the road with the Soweto Gospel Choir. In the brief periods when she and her 25 colleagues aren’t crisscrossing the world, they’re rehearsing for the next tour. It’s a gruelling schedule, but Luzipo isn’t about to complain.
“We’re so lucky to be able to travel, doing what we love most, and are always mindful of the plight of people back home — most particularly the children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic,” she says.
Soon after the choir formed in 2002, it created a charity to support HIV-afflicted families and organizations that receive little or no help from the government. After each performance, spectators are encouraged to give donations that are then used to buy blankets, clothing, medicine and food.
So far, the choir has collected more than $600,000. That figure is likely to rise steeply, as almost all shows have sold out since the choir’s second release, Blessed, picked up a Grammy Award last month for Best Traditional World Music album.
Gospel runs deep in South Africa. It emerged from the confluence of Christian hymns and indigenous vocal traditions such as mbube, the Zulu harmony-singing popularized by groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The music was shaped by South Africa’s turbulent political history as well.
“With all the struggles our people have been through in colonial times and during the apartheid regime, it was natural for men and women to cry out to God for help through their songs,” Luzipo says. “Gospel has endured and become the most popular genre in our country.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir sings mainly unaccompanied, its great swelling harmonies frequently punctuated by cries, ululations and hand-clapping. Djembe drums or a four-piece electric band drive the faster, more rhythmic pieces. The repertoire comprises traditional African chants and spirituals, as well as popular contemporary songs such as Bob Marley’s One Love and Bob Dylan’s I’ll Remember You, which are given innovative new interpretations on the ensemble’s recently released third album, African Spirit.
The group’s rise has been phenomenal. Shortly after it first assembled, the choir was invited to appear at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s 46664 concert (named after Mandela’s prisoner number) in Cape Town to help raise awareness of AIDS in Africa. The lineup included Beyoncé Knowles, Bono, Peter Gabriel and Jimmy Cliff, and the concert was broadcast worldwide on MTV.
The choir’s third tour of North America has been “momentous,” Luzipo says. The highlight, of course, was the Grammy Award. “We learned about it just 15 minutes before show time and, man, that night we really blazed!”
She adds that everyone is still celebrating in South Africa, where the choir was praised in all the daily papers. “We read how proud Nelson Mandela is of us, which made me specially happy because he’s been like a father to us.”
Despite all the acclaim, Luzipo says the choir can’t wait to get back to the little “village” in Johannesburg it created for homeless kids. “When you’re seeing the world and tasting such sweet success, it’s wonderful at the same time to be part of something so humbling.”