April 2007, BlackGospel.com by Christopher Heron
One of the most inspiring stories told of horrifying brutality, great faith and divine deliverance in native languages like Kiswahili and Zulu comes from the inspiring voices and spirited choreography of the Soweto Gospel Choir. Most Gospel music fans in America are only remotely familiar with this International recording artist, even though they’ve already released three albums, achieved Gold status as an artist and already won their 1st Grammy award in 2007.
This jubilant Gospel choir, formed less than 5 years ago in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ also known as South Africa, has found a surprisingly large international audience that’s exponentially swelling and winning hearts and souls through their deeply connected faith and their excellent professional presentation.
Their story is a tale of young South African Christians prevailing against enormous odds, healing a nation through the message of the Gospel in song and putting their unyielding faith into action by establishing a hostel that seeks to serve a nation devastated by the AIDS epidemic.
BlackGospel.com spoke with the director of the Soweto Gospel Choir to find the living lessons that could be learned by our brothers and sisters halfway around the globe.
Christopher Heron: The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed about five years ago. What sparked the vision to launch a touring choir from Soweto, South Africa?
David Mulovhedzi: There were a few influences: friends of ours from Australia, the deacon from South Africa. People have said to them that we should form a gospel group. Clifford, Beverly, and I started auditioning different groups from different churches and communities. Finally, we came up with thirty-two beautiful voices and of course that is what we needed, that and self-discipline.
CH: Tell us a little bit about the area known as Soweto. What makes this city or village in South Africa so special? Why is this region in South Africa providing such a pool of talent for the Soweto Gospel Choir?
DM: It is a township, which happens to be a very well known city in South Africa. The city was discovered in the olden days; most of its people moved from the rural areas to the township. It has its own very political and cultural background; there’s a lot of history to the area. During the time of the struggle, people congregated from different churches.
They, as a people, prayed to the Lord that one day we would be free and that people could move freely to other cities. Hence, we started singing both freedom and religious songs, whereas most Church people would sing hymns; praising God every time they got together. They would preach to people that there shouldn’t be hate. At times, Gospel music was a Godsend to the South African people, and as a result, most of the choirs and people enjoyed the hymns from different churches. So, when the Gospel choir was formed, we had to sing all those beautiful hymns from different churches and bring them together as the one musical voice for South Africa.
CH: Why did you decide to name the choir the ‘Soweto Gospel Choir’ as opposed to perhaps the ‘South African Gospel Choir’ or, the ‘Johannesburg Gospel Choir’?
DM: We thought of this beautiful name because of its historic background. By the same token, we thought it is a well-known township that possesses this beautiful talent of singers and dancers; hence, we chose a name of the gospel choir, ‘Soweto Gospel Choir’.
CH: Gospel music in America is deeply rooted in the Black Church experience, or the Black church style or culture of worship. I’m sure you’ve had some exposure to this form of worship in your traveling experiences. How does Gospel music differ in South Africa, in principle, from Gospel music sung in America? And, how would you describe the distinction or difference in the style or culture of worship in the two Black churches, when you compare America with South Africa?
DM: I think the difference between American and South African Gospel differs in that, African people, when they were preaching to God, they include African drums and a lot of the foot stomping. Americans do dance and use certain body movements as well. I think there are varying differences. But, we both say thanks to the Lord as we celebrate what He does for our people.
CH: Gospel music in America is still a very spiritual expression of praise, worship, divine adoration. All of these characteristics are also part of the Soweto Gospel Choir experience. Is part of the mission of the choir to witness and introduce God through their performances and their recordings?
DM: That is another way. At the same time, the talent we showcase is in everything that we do; it’s a musical ministry. We are ministering through music, as we travel around the world. During the beautiful songs that we brought from South Africa, people sing along and enjoy it. People praise the Lord, and dancing, and foot stomping, is something that reverberates around the world. This is one way to show the world how we praise our Lord.
CH: The choir has just released their new album, “African Spirit.” How would you characterize or define the African spirit in general? And then please share with us a little bit about this particular special album you dedicated to one of your founding members who passed away, Clifford Hocking.
DM: We had to name this album the “African Spirit”, which carries the meaning that Africans, especially South Africans, fought to be spiritually and mentally free. We did everything in a way that respected God. We prayed for Africans to be free. And today, we live in a democratic country. We call the South the, “Rainbow Nation,” There is so much happening and, hence, we feel that Africans are virtually free.
We dedicated the album to the “African Spirit” we experienced and, of course, to our late director, whom we felt had done so much for the Gospel choir. When we produced and recorded this album, we wanted a couple of songs that would reflect what a great man he was; one who helped the Soweto Gospel choir become who we are today.
CH: South Africa is such a highly politically charged nation. Considering it’s rich and well-documented history, it’s all very understandable. My question is, as a ministry, the Soweto Gospel Choir had a profound impact internationally, but how has it affected the citizens of South Africa, both White and Black, in terms of breaking down the cultural and the race distinctions and the historical boundaries that divided its people for generations?
DM: I think the Soweto Gospel Choir has played a very important role because most of our local shows are completely integrated and multi-cultural. There are White people, Black people, and a variety of ethnic groups who attend our show. It doesn’t matter which area we perform in, there is a mixed audience. We have programs where, if we do “corporate” function, we find that Whites will dominate the crowd. It’s not like before, when, if an African group was to perform; only Africans will be in that venue. Currently, it is a completely multi-racial audience. You will find that on TV or on the news or wherever the Soweto Gospel Choir performs, an important role in the program is bringing together both White and Black people.
CH: That’s beautiful. The Soweto Gospel Choir founded a charitable organization, an AIDS orphan foundation called, “Nkosi’s Haven.” Tell us a little about this organization that was started by the choir and the plight that many Africans and South Africans still face with the AIDS epidemic.
DM: AIDS is such a cruel disease that is still plaguing South Africa. When the Soweto Gospel Choir tours around the world, we preach the Gospel. Whenever we offer to help children, there are still kids that are left behind. We think of those kids, how no body can see them. Therefore, we founded a charity called, “Nkosi’s Haven.” With the donations that we receive at our shows, we buy clothes, blankets, the bare necessities for those kids. We make a better life for them as orphans. Sometimes, they cannot depend on their government, so, we have to play a part in assisting those kids. During our shows, we do our best so that it’s not only about entertaining people and touring the world, but we have a duty to fulfill. We know that the orphans must also be looked after.
CH: For those who have yet to see the Soweto Gospel Choir, what are some of interesting things people will hear and see for the very first time?
DM: I think the very first time, when people go to the concert, they will enjoy our music. It is something that they would never have seen before. We do a lot of dancing and foot stomping on stage and, of course, the beautiful songs we sing are done in our native language like Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa and of course in English. People will definitely enjoy this.
Even though the songs are sung in a different language, which does not mean that they will not understand, because music is a universal language and so they will definitely enjoy it. I mean we’ve done it around the world and people tend to stand up and dance and do as we do and celebrate our faith with us. In English, we do songs that are very well known like “Amazing Grace,” and, “Oh Happy Day”, because these are some of the songs that we feel we should include in our set and people will enjoy.