3 May 2008
Behind the success of the Soweto Gospel Choir is an unlikely story few have heard. “Australia was the beginning of everything for the choir,” executive producer and director Beverly Bryer says.
That three Australian producers are responsible for the formation of the choir after a twist of fate left them with a pile of bookings to fill proved a rather unremarkable start for the now internationally acclaimed, two-time Grammy-winning group.
The year was 2002 and a Welsh choir had just pulled out of an Australian tour organised by Andrew Kay, Clifford Hocking and David Vigo. If not for that, the Soweto Gospel Choir may never have existed.
“We were planning to tour a Welsh choir and they decided they weren’t available for their own reasons. We had booked and paid deposits on 23 venues around Australia and had to find a replacement act,” Kay says.
Kay, of Andrew Kay and Associates in Melbourne, along with impresarios Vigo and the late Hocking, has been responsible for presenting such successful tours as Buena Vista Social Club, pianist David Helfgott and The Blue Room starring Sigrid Thornton and Marcus Graham.
In South Africa earlier that same year to consider touring the musical Umoja (another success), Kay was introduced to pastor and choir director David Mulovhedzi by South African producer Beverly Bryer.
“He showed us his choir from the Holy Jerusalem Church, which is a small church run out of his garage,” Kay says. “They sang beautifully but they had no resources and no one had produced them.”
Back in Australia seven months later and without an act to tour, Kay phoned Bryer, who had successfully produced the dance show African Moves, asking her to work with Mulovhedzi to put a choir together to tour Australia and New Zealand in three months.
“It was an extraordinarily silly thing to do because it was so dangerous,” Kay says.
Within a month, Bryer and Mulovhedzi had auditioned for members and chosen 32 singers collectively known as the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“We took photographs at the audition and we used them for press advertising. Before the choir had their first rehearsal we’d gone on sale in Australia,” Kay says.
The next month the choir recorded an album, Voices of Heaven, to be sold on tour and another month later were on a plane to Australia where they received rave reviews and performed sell-out shows at the Sydney Opera House.
“It’s quite phenomenal and ridiculous when we look at it five years later with all the awards and all the success. It was almost a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Bryer says.
In Soweto, talented choirs are common and music a way of life. At first Bryer didn’t think the group would succeed, because she was so exposed to the culture’s musicality.
“When I first rang Bev, and she admits this and is a bit embarrassed by it now, her first words were, `African choirs are boring’. We said, `Maybe, but they don’t have to be and it’s your job to make it not boring’. She made it a theatrical event,” Kay says.
The show was developed to provide audiences with a broader cultural experience rather than just a religious one.
“It was more a world music experience we were looking for, but the choir as it is today is a choir made up of people who are believers and belong to a whole range of different churches, and it is to them a religious experience,” she says.
Proud though they are, neither Bryer nor Kay can quite put their finger on why the choir has been such a success.
“I think they’ve got the X-factor,” Bryer says. “They’ve got this absolute energy, love of singing and vibrancy, even when you watch them rehearse, it just comes out. They can be tired, they can be in a bad mood, but they get on that stage and they’ve got so much raw energy and passion.”
“There’s a freshness and an importance about them,” Kay says.
A good repertoire also goes a long way.
“Gospel music can go on for 20 minutes a song but we’ve learnt to get songs that will appeal to everyone. We’ve made it not just a choir, we’ve made it a show so it’s not just people standing there singing,” Bryer says.
For the ensemble members, the choir has drastically changed their lives. “Most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lot of them are buying houses and cars and they all support families who are very dependent on them,” Bryer says.
Due to demand for performances, the choir has expanded to 52 members split in two groups.