June 1, 2008
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: SK Luzipo, welcome to Sunday Arts.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Thank you for having me.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us about the song that we heard. A very powerful number.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Alright. That was called Ke Na Le Modisa, an interpretation of The Lord Is My Shepherd.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So it’s a religious song?
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Yes.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us about its origins, because it’s sung in a traditional tongue but about a Christian faith.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Most of our songs are normally songs we find in hymn books, especially the choir. I think that’s one that’s been around for quite some time, sung in most churches in South Africa, very well known.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We’ve heard of choirs from South Africa, and some very well known music groups. I guess Ladysmith Black Mambazo is probably best known, but there’s something slightly different about your troupe, the Soweto Gospel Choir, tell us about that.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: I think the Ladysmith Black Mambazo are more of a group, and we’re more of a choir. 26 choir members, a four-piece band, djembes, dancers. So ours is completely different. I think what works with our music is our simplicity, and we not only sing gospel, but we sing it the South African way. It’s got a lot of energy and mostly songs that are sung at home in our churches. Not only gospel songs but international spirituals, modern day, not only catering for South African audiences, but different races and different ages.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us about the role of gospel singing in South African music. Has it always been important?
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Very important. It actually started in the Apartheid era. I’m very young, 24, but I’ve been told that gospel was the voice at that time, when there was strife and riots, people would run to the church, and felt that God would protect them. They’d sing and write those songs, songs like Don’t Cry Nation, God Is With You. And so that is how our gospel was created from the church, from people running from what was happening out there in Soweto. Running to the churches, creating that music, which touched the souls. That music still does exist and is still beautiful.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I guess also it’s a convenient way, that kind of church gospel singing, to communicate a political message. Because when it’s represented as a spiritual fact, and you’re apparently singing about this, you can actually be singing about something else.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Exactly. I think while we are not a political choir and we don’t touch politics in any way, but we do have songs that do pay tribute to those who have paved the way for us. We’ve a song called Asimbonanga Biko, paying tribute to the likes of Steve Biko. Spirituality and religion does have a beautiful way of blending in with the strife and the struggle that our nation has been through.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The beginnings of the choir have links to Australia, don’t they?
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Definitely.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us that story.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: We believe that Australia’s our second home. Our Australian producers came to South Africa to watch a show and they were so impressed with that group that they felt a need to form a choir, taking that sound and that dance around the world. So it was in newspapers, radio and TV that auditions were being held. And so there were long queues, we ran to the recreation centre. And we auditioned, and everyone you see in the choir are people that made it through the auditioning process. There are people back home who still want to be in the choir. It’s even worse now that we’ve become so famous. But we believe that immediately after the choir was formed we came to Australia. After you guys said, “Thumbs up,” my God, we were in the UK, we were in Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, you guys gave us the blessing.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The beginnings of that was one of those classic showbiz stories, where a Welsh choir was booked at these venues in Australia, that was cancelled and the promoter had to find a choir and it was you.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: And it was weird for us because the first we were formed we performed in places like the Sydney Opera House, and people tell you Pavarotti’s been there, you think, “My God. We’re such amateurs. How lucky are we?” We just did it the right way and people loved it. After that we were all over the world.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: As a spectator it often appears that the black gospel voice is born so wonderfully, exists in this in this great way, that it must require not very much musical training or rehearsal. Is that true?
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: In this choir we do not use notes. We don’t use musical terms in any way.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But you must rehearse and perform your exercises?
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Yes, we do rehearse, but it comes naturally. Some of the songs and some of the art that we have is what our mothers’ mothers used to sing, which is what we do naturally. We do have people that have worked with Michael Jackson, some very good singers in the choir, but we do rehearse. It’s never been a formal training, it all comes naturally. It’s worse when we get together as a choir. There’s so much energy, love, passion and soul rehearsing that some of the songs and the beats we create just work.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The choir shared the stage with Bono and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and performed for people like Oprah Winfrey and the like, tell us about personal highlights for you.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: I think it’s actually two incidents, the first one being the 46664 concert. That was about 2004 and they wanted a choir to back the top artists. I’m telling you when they picked the Soweto Gospel Choir we were in awe, because we are just a choir from Soweto working with Peter Gabriel, Bono, Beyonce, we were just mingling with them, dining with them, it was too much to handle. Another one would have to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That was a lovely audience, the biggest we’ve had so far – 30,000 people.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: A pleasure meeting you. Thanks for joining us.
SIPOKAZI LUZIPO: Thank you for having me.