Baton Rough Advocate
April 20 2007
BY JOHN WIRT
Music critic Sipokazi Luzipo, a lead singer and narrator with the Soweto Gospel Choir, loves performing in the United States, even though North American winters get quite uncomfortable for her and other choir members from subtropical South Africa.
“When we get on stage people are warm, they’ve got smiles, they’re going crazy, they love the sound,” the 23-year-old Luzipo said. “The only thing that might disturb us is the weather. When we left home it was summer and when we came to the U.S. it was winter. So we had to adapt to the changes. It gets a bit tricky for us.
“We’ve got our jackets, we’ve got blankets that we buy because we travel with the bus most of the time. The driver takes good care of us. And we try to take good care of our voices, stay away from the alcohol, drink lots of hot tea and honey and lemon. A good warmup and physical exercise before the show gives us a good performance.”
Besides enthusiastic U.S. audiences, there’s something else about this country that members of the Soweto Gospel Choir like very much — Wal-Mart. “Every time we come to America it’s a pleasure coming to Wal-Mart,” Luzipo said. “For us it’s affordable. We’ve got perdiems to cover our food, our expenses for the week. So when we come here we can survive. If there was no Wal-Mart, I tell you, it would be very expensive for us!” The Soweto Gospel Choir tours nine months a year. The group’s members do get homesick.
“So much!” Luzipo said. “But now we’ve gotten used to it. For me, the 33-year-old lady who becomes my older sister. The 47-year-old guitarist becomes my father. We lean on each other.” An original member of the choir, Luzipo was 19 when she auditioned for the group upon its formation in 2002. “I’d just graduated from high school,” she said. “I was really young, not familiar with traveling or leaving my mom for such a long time.” Because she’d grown up singing in church and school, Luzipo saw the chance to join the choir as a great opportunity. “I didn’t have any money to further my studies,” she said. “I was just hoping the Lord would answer my prayer somehow.”
The singer’s mother wasn’t enthusiastic. “I told her, ‘Mom, let me go see what I can get for myself.’ She didn’t want me to go. I said, ‘Mom, let me go try out for these auditions and see what God has in store.’ So we prayed and she let me go. “There were wonderful singers, long cues. Some people I’d seen on TV. I was a bit nervous but I gave it my best shot. The next day, Bev (Bryer, a choir co-founder), called and told me they’d taken me as a member of the choir.” The newly formed choir planned an exploratory visit to Australia.
Told of the trip, Luzipo’s mother didn’t believe it. “She thought it was a joke. So she had to come with me to the airport and see that it was real.” The Australia performances were successful. More tours followed, to the British Isles, Germany, the U.S. and other European nations. “Man, we have been all over and wherever we go people are moved,” Luzipo said. “Either they are up by the end of the show on their feet dancing or they are in tears. So I think the beauty of our music is that it touches the soul regardless of it being sung in a native language. We give it our own interpretation and we go to town with it.”
The latest Soweto Gospel Choir CD, African Spirit, features traditional South African spirituals, South African pop, American gospel and international pop music. Tracks include songs composed by Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff and an inconcert performance of U2’s “One” with Bono himself as lead vocalist. “One” was recorded at the star-filled 46664 concert in South Africa, part of Nelson Mandela’s AIDS awareness campaign. “The aura that was in the air that evening, I think no other performance will ever beat that one,” Luzipo said. “We see those people on TV. It was overwhelming just to shake hands with them and have them hug us and thank us. We were so humbled to work with such big stars.”
The Soweto Choir has its own AIDS-related charity, Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani, which supports eight AIDS orphan establishments. “As blessed as we are and as successful as we’ve become, we’ve never forgotten the circumstance back home. So when we go back home we buy groceries for the kids, we buy books, we buy medication. We love giving back to our communities and we never forget the AIDS epidemic.” Even when Luzipo is simply speaking, her enthusiasm for life and music is infectious. “I was very young during Apartheid, but we’ve learned about it at school and my mom will tell me some of the things that happened. After the liberation, the diversity of our culture, the diversity of our faith, is beautiful.
We look to the future with optimism, with excitement, with hope and inspiration. “I think we reflect that in our performance. Had it not been for the liberation, we wouldn’t be getting the opportunities that we get today. So it is our pride and it is our joy, everything that we’ve been through, because sometimes you need to know where you’ve come from to know where you are and where you are going.”