The London Independent
Jun 4, 2007
by Michael Church
The Holy Brothers, the Holy Spirits, the Twelve Apostles Church Choir, the King’s Messengers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Rock of Ages Temple Choir – the list of South African gospel choirs runs into hundreds, as does the number of gospel sects. This doesn’t reflect doctrinal differences: in a country where almost all consider themselves Christians, what this multiplication reflects is a myriad differing styles of worship, which is why The Rough Guide to South African Gospel is such a kaleidoscopic mix.
That excellent CD doesn’t include the Soweto Gospel Choir because it was made at a time when this group was unknown outside its country’s borders: now garlanded with a Grammy, and permanently on tour round the world, these charismatic singers will soon make a splash in London with a performance in St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 July.
Their repertoire extends far beyond the usual South African gospel fare, but it’s still rooted in that tradition, which goes back to the early 19th century when so-called “African” hymns were little more than awkward transliterations of European originals. Since then, the gospel genre has been continually refreshed by the subcontinent’s indigenous vocal traditions: since the European churches didn’t like their African converts to assert their own culture, the converts splintered off into churches of their own. And when apartheid was imposed, those churches gained new political impetus.
Cultural identity for black Africans has never been a simple matter. A big debate is currently raging over how “indigenous” music should be defined, because while the missionary musical influence runs deep, there are nine distinct African ethnic groups, and many more local languages. Several of those came together in Soweto. Talking to Sibongile Khumalo, the South African diva who is a role- model for many of the singers in the Soweto Gospel Choir, I get a vivid glimpse of what this hybrid culture must have been like when they were growing up.
“My earliest musical memories are of Radio Bantu,” she says. “That was a rich brew of traditional Zulu music, church music, and singers like Miriam Makeba and the Mahotella Queens. And in the streets we heard the Salvation Army: when I was small I used to march behind them. Since everything was communal, we all heard each other’s music: some neighbours held church services in their yard, some played drums, some – like my elder brother – played jazz, so I grew up surrounded by a myriad sounds.
“I wanted to study music at university, but in those days, if you were black, two things had to happen first. You had to get the offer of a place from the university, then you had to get permission to study there from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I got the one, but was refused the other. There was no reason given.”
So she went to study at the local black university, where equal weight was given to European and African music. “We used to go out into the hinterland and record [music], and bring it back and transcribe and analyse it. And in this way we were able to find a new way of looking at our indigenous music, rather than simply enjoying it as the background to our lives.”
Sibongile could at least finance her studies: many members of the Soweto Gospel Choir had to leave university, with choral singing being a fall-back option. But that was before this new choir – which was founded in 2002 – took off. Twenty-year-old Sipokazi Luzipo is a case in point: “Initially I joined the choir simply to earn some money,” she admits. “But it became so important to me, such a joy, that I decided to stay with it. I will eventually study to be an economist, but for now life is wonderful. When you’re sharing the stage with Diana Ross and Bono, you don’t want to think about anything else. We are all blown away by our success. The whole thing is like a dream, as though we are being helped by a divine power. When we sing, people are in tears, but they leave with a smile. So there must be something deep in our music.”
Dancer and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane originally wanted to be a doctor, but with sickness decimating his family – his father, brother and two sisters all died before he had reached adulthood – he could-n’t afford the tuition fees. When he was 11, he formed a dance group with six friends, and now dreams of using the money he is earning with the choir to set up his own dance school. “I always had a dream of performing in Australia and America,” he says, “but I didn’t know it would ever become a reality. I struggled and went through a lot of pain, but I came out strong. Hard work pays off.”
Thembisa Khuzwayo is a 26-year-old with a dry sense of humour, whose long-term ambition is to become an ambassador, but she had to abort her legal studies because she, too, couldn’t afford the fees. Travelling round the world for nine months a year is fun, she says, but she misses her mother, grandmother, and son back home in Soweto.
The choir’s music director Lucas Deon Bok stresses the difference between his choir and others: “We have brought a new sound, the sound of liberation, joy, optimism and hope,” he says. “It’s the sound of post-apartheid South Africa. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s message was about struggle, and it sought to bring awareness about our situation to the outside world. It was the music of protest. We are singing out of triumph and gratitude to those countries which have helped us win our battle.”
He stresses the new sophistication they have brought to traditional songs, and when you listen to what they do with “Amazing Grace”, you see what he means. The basic anthem starts dry, then a female soloist comes in over the top, and, after the first verse, starts to syncopate gently with the rest of the choir. Then another woman takes over, and the sound gets richer. Then a third woman comes in: each soloist has a different timbre, like a series of instrumental riffs in a jazz set. The momentum is powerful, with the solos becoming progressively more ornate. Finally, their voices intertwine before it all dies away. It is indeed an amazingly graceful performance.