By Kara Patterso
October 16, 2008
However far the two-time Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir travels, the South African singers, dancers and instrumental musicians never forget where they came from.
“We are young South Africans that have been given a great opportunity,” said Sipokazi Luzipo, the show’s narrator and one of the touring choir’s 26 or so musicians, most of whom started singing young in their churches and neighborhoods. “It’s about showing the beauty that has come out of South Africa. What we do is also to our communities’ benefit.”
The choir’s current U.S. and Canadian tour, “African Spirit,” which stops Oct. 23 in Appleton, showcases traditional African gospel, Western gospel and contemporary songs of the type that choir members have performed for disadvantaged and ill children at orphanages throughout their homeland.
At some point during the concert at the downtown Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, the choir will provide an opportunity for audience members to donate funds to its charitable foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani. The foundation has raised about $1.05 million to help alleviate poverty for South African children, and choir members have personally distributed supplies at orphanages.
“We just form a line, and we pass the food from one choir member to another,” said Luzipo, 24, who joined the choir when it formed in 2002. “Bags of rice, vegetables. The kids will eat; the choir will sing for them. We just try and reach out to all of them. The ones who don’t go to school need blankets, but the ones who do go to school need books. All of them need food. That’s where we come in as a group.”
Making and listening to music in African cultures is a daily activity through which people worship, pass along oral histories, mourn and celebrate, said Dane Richeson, a professor of music and the director of percussion studies at Lawrence University in Appleton. The African percussion ensemble he directs, called Kinkaviwo, will demonstrate Ghanaian styles of drumming, dance and song during a pre-concert presentation.
“A lot of the music is highly complex, rhythmic composition, all passed down from generation to generation,” Richeson said. “There’s something very soulful and powerful in the music. It’s something I can’t imagine (the African people) ever going a day without.”
Music played a central role in the South African struggle against apartheid, a policy of racial discrimination active in the 1940s-1990s that sought to maintain white supremacy within the nation’s government and society.
“It was the music of the church, the music of love, music of faith, music that was meant to bring people together,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music and an ethnomusicologist who is interested in South African vocal music. “Now it’s a music that really demonstrates the unity in South Africa, where they want to go, the hope for the future.”
The South African vocal tradition is a meshing of European missionaries’ hymn-singing styles combined with the sound, passion and motion of African indigenous music, Pertl said.
“It’s a bridge tradition, where they can come to a place like Appleton and people get the church tradition and gospel music it’s coming out of,” he said. “It should be very accessible and very enjoyable.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir, dressed in the colors of the rainbow to illustrate they come from the “Rainbow Nation” of diverse tribes and cultures, performs a cappella about 80 percent of the time during concerts, Luzipo said.
The choir sings in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages and in English on songs such as “Amazing Grace” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You.”
“The show is not only about us as Africans,” Luzipo said. “It’s about being spirited, be it through our church songs, be it through our love songs. We find in some places people don’t understand our language, but they are blessed and they are in tears, because the music touches the soul.”