May 24, 2008
By Scott Kara
New Zealand Herald
Like many of the singers in the Soweto Gospel Choir, Sipokazi Luzipo had little before she joined its ranks.
She had graduated from high school but, because her mother was a single parent, the family had no money and no chance to give her a higher education. “I was just hoping that something like what has happened in my life would happen,” she says.
The choir begins a New Zealand tour on Wednesday with a concert at the Auckland Town Hall.
“It’s amazing really how God is always on time because there was no money,” continues Luzipo, who was born in Port Elizabeth and moved to Soweto in 2002 when she was selected for the choir.
“Before liberation in 1994, we as a nation had been through so much – the riots and the strife – and living in shacks, but being in the choir has allowed me, and all of us, privilege in life and we can now be the financial providers in our families.”
She says these days Soweto, an area of Johannesburg which became a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, is a beautiful place. It is developing as a city on its own and while there are still squatter camps and shacks, there are also malls, high-quality homes and a better standard of living all round.
“It’s a place of hope. It’s colourful. And, if you’re young, that’s where you want to be in the weekends because that’s where you find the diversity and faith. It’s where everybody wants to be now. That is where life is,” she says.
It takes more than just a great voice to make it into the Soweto Gospel Choir and Luzipo sees her role not only as an entertainer but also as a missionary.
“It is like a ministry for us and we have a duty as performers to not only sing but to change peoples’ lives and to deliver messages of hope and peace.
“There could be a room of 3000 people and you might find half of them are in pain, half of them just need one song to change their situation. So that’s why we see it more as a ministry than an entertainment and we spread the gospel through music and song.”
But never fear, they won’t be preaching and you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the show.
“We are entertainers at the end of the day so you don’t have to be a believer,” Luzipo chuckles.
The show the choir performs in New Zealand is called African Spirit, taken from the title of its latest album. It is a mix of African gospel music, traditional hymns and popular tunes – including Bob Marley’s One Love – with dancing, a live band and percussionists.
The choir started in 2002 almost by accident. When a Welsh choir that was meant to tour New Zealand and Australia cancelled, concert promoter Andrew Kay asked Bev Bryer (now the choir’s director) to put together an African group to take its place.
She got together with choir master David Mulovhedzi and, in a three-month period, they selected 32 choir members, recorded an album and the Soweto Gospel choristers found themselves touring Australia and New Zealand.
“We knew we had something special when we started auditioning and heard these voices,” says Bryer. “The African talent is phenomenal and it’s a natural talent. It is the culture and it’s from the heart.”
These days, there are two choirs who tour the world and about 70 per cent of the members come from Soweto. They have won two Grammy Awards, worked with the likes of Bono and Peter Gabriel, supported acts as diverse as Celine Dion and Red Hot Chili Peppers and have performed many times for Nelson Mandela.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what is unique about it,” says Bryer. “It’s an incredible energy. They get on stage, they don’t stop for a minute and it’s a natural energy. There’s an absolute joy in the singing …
“In Soweto, there’s an incredible sense of family and a warmth and friendliness there, and I think that’s why it comes out in the singing, too.”