23 August 2007
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 for a one-off tour of Australia. Five years on, they have won a Grammy in the Best Traditional World Music category for their CD Blessed, a South African Music Award (Sama) for Best Live DVD for Blessed, and the award for Best Gospel Choir at the American Gospel Music Awards in 2003. The group will perform in Cape Town on September 8.
Beverly Bryer is the choir’s executive producer and director.
You’ve moved to Australia twice. Where are you based now?
I’m South African and I was always here. In 1985 I moved to Australia for eight years, came back for a couple of years and then decided to go for one more year and then decided no – South Africa! So I’m back home permanently.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was the brainchild of Australian producers/promoters. What was the motivation behind forming the choir?
I’d met them and they had been promoting shows from all around the world and they were always very interested in South African talent. They asked who I could recommend and we talked about Umoja. They promoted them there. When I came back to live in South Africa they phoned me in September. They had had another choir booked for Australia/New Zealand for March the following year that had cancelled. They’d got the idea from coming to South Africa previously and seeing David Mulovhedzi’s choir and also looking at how popular the gospel music was in Umoja when it was in Australia. They suddenly thought if they were not going to have this other choir, they’d love to have a choir from South Africa.
So they phoned me and David and said instead of taking a choir that already exists, rather form a new one from the different communities and let’s take it to Australia and see how it does. It was sold out. No one thought five years later it would be as huge as it is.
It’s a 26-member group. How long did it take to get them together?
We had very little time so we had to audition within about two weeks to get them ready because we wanted to record an album to take on tour. So we did auditions and we did it through word of mouth and phoning. But in the past two years, because there’s been such a demand for them in South Africa and even in two countries at the same time, we’ve expanded the choir to 52 members. So 26 tour and the other 26 are either here or they are doing another tour.
What were your considerations during auditions?
I think it was more just a matter of instinct. Obviously the voice was the most important. We looked for something unique like stage personality. We also wanted dancers because we wanted to make it into a show. So we brought in dancers, percussionists and a bit of comedy.
How many albums has the group recorded?
They’ve done three. They completed African Spirit last year. That is the one that is going to be in the show in Cape Town. The whole point of African Spirit was, there is a Bob Dylan song, there’s World in Union … we’ve looked at the spiritual journey. All these songs relate to the spirit – whether it’s the love of another person, the love of God, the love of life – they’re all done with African spirit.
This is the group’s first national tour – why not before?
They were never here. This is a taster and if it goes down well then we can say next year we’re going to put aside another month or so to do it.
What effect has their success had on the group?
It’s been something super-special.
Everyone came into that choir knowing they were taking a chance, hoping something would happen with it and suddenly within a year, certainly internationally, it just started getting bigger and bigger and I think now, especially after the Grammy, everyone is still almost pinching themselves. In terms of their personal growth it’s been incredible to watch, to see how personalities have emerged and their pride in the choir. Also being able to provide now financially for family. Also just getting that praise from South Africans, I think that is the most important to them. They can travel the world but they always want to be home. For them South Africa and performing here is the most important thing.
Where have they been?
Where haven’t they been! They’ve been to Australia (twice), New Zealand, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Spain, Greece, Italy (a few times), Edinburgh (four times), America (thrice), Sweden, Holland, Martinique, Bahamas, Ghana, Swaziland – so we’re starting to branch more into Africa as well.
What’s in store for the choir after their national tour?
After that they have two weeks off and then they’re off to Holland and Spain and the other 26 will be going to France and possibly Hong Kong and Singapore, so it’s constant travelling after that. Then they’ll come back hopefully for a rest in the New Year and then start all over again.
What have been your highlights with the choir?
The Grammy obviously was the biggest highlight. We obviously loved the 46664 in Cape Town for Nelson Mandela. Carnegie Hall – they’ve played there three times now and that is also something very special, Sydney Opera House. And I’ve enjoyed when they’ve performed here locally – obviously in front of Madiba, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is their patron – we’ve performed for him at some of his special celebrations. Each one has had something very special. But obviously the Grammy, being up there on stage because you just don’t expect to get a Grammy. The reality is beyond words.