Soweto Choir offers glorious gospel revival
Published: Friday, March 30, 2007
What: Soweto Gospel Choir
Where: University of Victoria, Farquhar Centre Auditorium
When: Thursday night
Rating: 4 1/2 (out of five)
What concertgoers will remember Friday morning are sensory imprints left by the Soweto Gospel Choir — flickers of brilliant orange and green tunics, the clack of tongues, the fleeting flash of feet flung high.
And, above all, there is the echo of voices: A gorgeous human bloom that somehow suggests hope and richness in the face of oppression.
The Soweto Gospel Choir, formed just five years ago, is a Johannesburg-based ensemble blessed with glittering successes: Backing rock acts like Queen and Bono, winning a Grammy, singing for Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bill Clinton, performing on the storied stage of Carnegie Hall.
While terribly impressive, with this choir it mostly comes down to a single simple thing: The vocal harmonies. They are a splendid combination of scissor-sharp precision and velvety, open-throated power. Think of an immense human pipe organ. When the 25-member choir opens up full voice, the effect triggers grandiose images — gothic cathedrals, awe-inspiring canyons, vast cities at twilight. Very exciting, indeed.
Their monumental chords are synchopated, giving the impression of dexterous immensity, akin to a tank that handles like a Porsche.
Thursday night, the repertoire favoured traditional African songs of peace, happiness and praise. Many songs are structured around a call and response format, with lead singers — women in zebra printed skirts, men beaming with pride — stepping up to the front.
There were songs familiar to western audiences as well, such as the choir’s version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (originally a 1939 African pop hit called Mbube, or “lion”). In the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version, the pulsing harmonies overshadow the lead melody — it was a richer, earthier interpretation than, for instance, the Tokens’ 1961 hit.
The choir also offered its take on Peter Gabriel’s Biko, making it a solemn hymn (it’s about anti-apartheid campaigner Steven Biko).
The choir sings in different languages — Zulu, Sotho, French and English — and spans reggae, pop and South African gospel. Instrumentation is virtually non-existent, although a pair of hand-drums propel the ensemble throughout.
The dancing, as is typical of South African groups, was splendid. The men executed high kicks above their heads as though their lives depended on this; the women specialized in subtle hip swivels making it appear they were floating.
For fans of R&B and American gospel, it was fascinating to hear a clutch of young singers who might rival Aretha Franklin or Etta James. There were impressive soloists who eschewed the gimmickry of Christina Aguilera imitators for an earthy authenticity. Vocal ornamentation was deft and sure. Timbres range from smooth silk to rough velvet — one diminutive female singer revealed a thrilling, bird-like sound.
So many people talk of the healing power of music, the phrase has become worn-out. Not so when applied to the Soweto Gospel Choir, who come from a country torn by terrible violence and cruel apartheid policies.
That this music can blossom from such soil seems absolutely fantastic; a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Following a joyful version of Oh Happy Day, the choir received a standing ovation, with the concert finishing at 10:40 p.m.