25 August 2007
David Mulovhedzi is the founding musical director of Soweto Gospel Choir, the recent Grammy Award winners who returned home after touring the world. They play two concerts in Cape Town with special guest artist and multiple South African Music Award winner Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela.
Soweto Gospel Choir (they insist there’s no “the” before it) won the 2007 Best Traditional World Music Grammy for their album Blessed, and the Best Live DVD South African Music Award for the same work.
The 52-member choir has toured Europe, the United Kingdom, Asia, Australia, Canada and the United States, and was recently nominated for the International Reggae and World Music Awards, this year held in Harlem. As for Mulovhedzi, he has been managing gospel choir groups in Soweto for more than two decades, notably the Holy Jerusalem Choir. It sang at the Miss World pageant and entertained Michael Jackson on his South African tour.
In 2002, after Australian producers Andrew Kay and David Vigo had visited South Africa and seen the choir, Mulovhedzi was approached to co-found Soweto Gospel Choir.
“It is the greatest thing to receive this award,” Mulovhedzi says of the Grammy.
“It is doing wonders for us around the world. There is quite a lot of excitement, so we are motivated to do more than we already have done. We want to take South African music to the world; we want them to enjoy it, to listen and to watch the dancers.”
Mulovhedzi notes that the excitement is felt not only abroad.
“The people of Soweto are excited,” he says. “They feel they have been well represented on an international stage. A place like Soweto, which has such a highly political background, and here comes a choir that sings beautiful music, praising God to all the countries around the world. They say: ‘See, Soweto is not only about politics, they can also sing the beautiful lyrics of gospel’.”
During the telephone interview from Johannesburg, the sound of children laughing can be heard in the background. Mulovhedzi himself laughs: “We are at the Yeoville Recreation Centre; this is our place of rehearsal and I had to step out of it to talk to you. I am in the yard with the children playing.”
Soweto Gospel Choir rehearses there four days a week for three hours, with direction by Mulovhedzi, co-founder and executive producer/director Beverly Bryer and associate musical director Lucas Bok. They also draw on the talent of the many church and community choirs in and around Soweto.
They sing in six languages, including English, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho, and cover both traditional and contemporary gospel music which is punted as “earthy rhythms, rich harmonies and charismatic performances (creating) a unique blend of inspiration, soul and celebration of the unique spirit of South Africa”.
But Mulovhedzi has raised politics. “Gospel music is a thing of its own; we don’t have to involve politics,” he says after a moment’s reflection.
“We live in a political world and each and every player can do his own thing. When we perform, we have mixed audiences of white and black and coloured and Indian – at the Civic Theatre (on the Johannesburg leg of their national tour) we had the most multi-racial audience.
“We like bringing South Africans together. This is God’s way of saying ‘praise me’ around the world, and the best way to bring love and peace and harmony to our country.”
Since Soweto Gospel Choir’s debut in 2003, it has played sold-out concerts, sung alongside music legends like Bono, Diana Ross, Queen, Johnny Clegg, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff and Bebe Waynans, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, performed for Bill Clinton and for Oprah Winfrey, recorded with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and supported the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s German shows.
With this CV and now with the Grammy Award to the choir’s credit, how is Mulovhedzi handling the glare of the international spotlight and the pressure of expectation? “People expect more after the Grammy Award, this is true,” he says. “They expect a high standard of singing; they expect the best traditional and modern type of gospel and that is what we give them.”
Soweto Gospel Choir will perform material off its new album, African Spirit.
“We sing gospel for both the old and the young,” says Mulovhedzi. “The audience might be expecting gospel, but then we are singing and dancing and they must sing and dance along.
“They have never seen gospel like that around the world – songs like Oh, Happy Day or Lean On Me or Amazing Grace or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – when we do it with this African type of feeling. You should see, overseas, after our Amazing Grace people in the audience who are crying after we have finished singing.”