By Dave Holzman
October 16, 2008
When the Soweto Gospel Choir first formed in 2002, the group members could not have envisioned how much of a world-music phenomenon they would become.
Since then, the group has won two Grammy Awards, seen two of its albums reach the No. 1 position on the Billboard World Music Chart, collaborated with big names like Bono, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Celine Dion, and performed five times for Nelson Mandela, including a star-studded London concert to celebrate his 90th birthday. They have also raised more $1 million to provide care for those whose families have been victimized by AIDS.
In September, they simultaneously released their “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre” CD and DVD – a release timed to coincide with their current tour of North America, which comes to Hill Auditorium on Friday for a show sponsored by the University Musical Society.
Stylistically, the Soweto Gospel Choir’s music owes more to traditional African music than it does to American gospel – even though they do deliver the Christian message in some of their songs. The Christian faith has been practiced in South Africa since the 19th century, when missionary schools were established there.
But many of the songs are about South African pride, which is fitting for a country where, for more than 40 years, until 1990, the native black majority was oppressed and even brutalized by the white minority under the rule of apartheid, the legal practice of institutionalized racism, racial segregation and the stripping of the rights of the black native majority.
“Yes, it is important for us to sing about our love for our country, and our pride in our heritage,” says choir member Thembisa Khuzwayo. “It’s our way of letting the rest of the world know about South African history and culture, and how much pride there is here among our people, and how much we love our culture and our country.”
As in American gospel music, the Soweto choir constructs a rich, call-and-response vocal interplay. All the choir members are dressed in traditional, brightly colored African robes, while African dancing is a show-stopping element.
The group’s repertoire include songs sung in three different languages – Zulu, Sotho and English, which are only three of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
“Culture is always evolving, and popular music is part of that evolution,” observed Khuzwayo, who was born in Johannesburg but grew up in Ladysmith in the KwaZulu-Natal province. “We know it’s important for us to preserve and convey traditional music, but it’s also important for us to connect with various audiences, and to do that, we use the many different musical styles we know and love.”