By Tom Cardy
14 March 2003
There’s a big difference between the Soweto Gospel Choir, which performs in Wellington tomorrow, and American gospel groups. While both sing songs that stir the soul and get a crowd clapping, expect a lot more dancing and drums with the Soweto style.
This is because the choir’s gospel music is as much about South African traditions, which existed before the arrival of Christianity, says choirmaster David Mulovhedzi. “Our forefathers in the olden days used to praise God in different ways. If there’s a drought, they will make a few ceremonies and then dance when the rain comes down. Then they will praise their Lord. From that tradition the missionaries came to South Africa. When they (set up) schools and taught people Christianity it became a combination of Christianity and traditional ways of doing that. Eventually it moulded to be one thing,” he says.
“We praise the Lord with congo drum and all that, ululating (wailing) and dancing at the same time. The dancing takes part within the singing itself. It’s not a matter of preaching only. We are praising by singing.”
As well as the major Christian denominations, South Africans have been involved in more than 5000 independent Christian churches. That includes numerous Zionist Christian churches, one which has seven million members. Many churches hold outdoor services on hills or under trees, parishioners wearing bright blue or green robes.
We will hear traditional South African songs, including several performed by some of the choir’s lead singers. They include Sibongile Cynthia Makgathe, who has toured South Africa with Michael Jackson, and singer and dancer Mazwe Hopewell Shabalala, whose father, Mdaba Mhlongo, is a popular South African comedian and actor.
But the 32-member choir, four-piece band, dancers and drummers – who are on their first overseas tour – don’t ignore American gospel. The programme will include the hymn Amazing Grace and Go Down Jordan as well as soul tunes by Otis Redding and Jimmy Cliff’s reggae classic Many Rivers to Cross. “That music means a lot to people,” Mulovhedzi says.
The choir is made up of some of Soweto’s best singers, selected from more than 200 that Mulovhedzi helped audition. “We had to audition to encourage the members to come to this part of the world. We went to church choirs and we started auditioning them to get the top 32. We chose the best,” Mulovhedzi says.
Mulovhedzi, who was born and raised in Soweto, is a member of the Holy Jerusalem Evangelical Church. The choir includes members from the Holy Jerusalem Choir. Mulovhedzi’s parents were churchgoers and he grew up singing gospel from an early age. “When I went to school we were so fortunate because we used to have Sunday School and we would attend and sing a lot,” he says.
“We grew up within gospel music. That’s why – old as I am at the moment – I am still following the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mulovhedzi is being modest. He’s only 50 and his own voice can be a tenor or bass. “Even the alto. If it goes to the push, I can push myself to that limit to sing alto. I sang a lot and that’s why it was easy for us to make up the Soweto Gospel Choir and select the top stars. We gave them a bit of voice training here and there.”
What about keeping it all together?
“It’s quite a tough thing to be choirmaster, especially handling 32 people. But when you are used to this type of thing you know how to arrange them. With alto, soprano, bass and tenor you can work with the sections and you get eventually what you really want. They produce the best out of that.”
Soweto, near Johannesburg, is best known for its bloody 1976 uprising during the apartheid era. Today, with a population between three and four million, it’s the country’s wealthiest township, despite grinding poverty and high crime.
“It was tough, because a couple of years back things weren’t the way they were supposed to be,” says Mulovhedzi. “But South African people are very God-fearing people and they have got the spirit of being Christians and that makes them strive to be what they are today – especially when we sing gospel. The audience is always a mixed audience. That’s why they call us the rainbow nation. Everybody is enjoying life.”