Apr 18, 2008
By Diane Coetzer
JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir is aiming to emulate Ladysmith Black Mambazo by touring its way to global success.
Like the isicathimiya (a cappella) Zulu traditionalists, Soweto Gospel Choir can now lay claim to two Grammys, having added the 2008 best traditional world music award for “African Spirit” to last year’s triumph in the same category with “Blessed.” Both albums are released in the United States through Shanachie.
“When the choir received their first Grammy, they were in the middle of their second U.S. tour, and that announcement certainly boosted sales and interest,” choir co-director Beverly Bryer says. “A second Grammy will bring in even more people.”
Bryer founded the choir with David Mulovhedzi in 2002. Its members are drawn from churches and communities in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, and its repertoire is based on interpretations of traditional and contemporary South African music.
The 26-member choir’s “African Spirit” shows include a 48-date U.S. trek that begins in early October, takes in a date at New York’s Carnegie Hall and ends December 23 with a concert in the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. May/June shows in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, and dates in Europe later this year, are also lined up.
The choir’s U.S. tour last year grossed more than $1 million, according to Katy McDermott, managerial associate at IMG Artists, which handles the choir’s U.S. dates.
But album sales currently lag some way behind the choir’s live popularity: “African Spirit” has sold 12,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan; its top-selling CD is 2004’s “Voices From Heaven,” with 25,000 copies. Ladysmith’s top-selling album is 1987’s “Shaka Zulu” (Warner Bros), which has sold 162,000 copies, although its release, as with many Ladysmith albums, predates the 1991 adoption of SoundScan’s tracking program as the industry standard.
Ladysmith rose to global prominence from its work on Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland,” and Soweto Gospel Choir has also notched some high-profile collaborations. It appeared with Celine Dion February 14 in Johannesburg.
“They have such beautifully soulful voices and gorgeous harmonies, and they sing with such a natural rhythm,” Dion says. “I can’t wait to work with them again.”
Robert Plant also worked with the choir on “Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino,” when it joined him on a version of “Valley of Tears,” which he describes as “mesmerizing, beautiful and phenomenally resonant.”
Plant adds, “Working with the choir, with their energy and positivity, has been one of the major events of my recent years.”
Bryer describes international touring as “essential” for keeping the choir’s high profile.
“This is a choir that thrills its audiences the most through its live shows,” she says. “The more successful they are, the more is expected of them, but they’ve risen to the challenge and are ready to show U.S. audiences why they’ve received two Grammy Awards.”