By Tim Van Schmidt
October 29, 2008
The Soweto Gospel Choir doesn’t waste a second when on stage. At least that’s how their show went at the Lincoln Center last night. This was a performing unit that seemed very eager to please and that included eliminating any down time on stage by making split second changes in vocalists, dancers and instrumentalists in between songs. That the music was high energy from start to finish in the first place meant that the Soweto Gospel Choir kept up a vigorous pace indeed.
There were plenty of other aspects of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s performance that impressed mightily. First of all, just the number of performers- 24 vocalists (some of whom doubled as members of a four-piece band and as dancers) and 2 percussionists- was powerful in itself. All those voices working together created an unmistakably unique sound, reflecting the group’s South African roots. Add in that the costuming was very bright (even fluorescent) and busy and that the group has made it a clear priority to keep everybody moving- either dancing or participating in group hand movements- meant that there was a whole lot to look at on the crowded stage.
Of course, the Soweto Gospel Choir’s music is at the center of it all. It didn’t seem to matter if the group was singing traditional African songs, American gospel tunes such as “Amazing Grace” and “Oh Happy Day” or revved up versions of songs by Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, there was a vigorous aesthetic at work throughout it all. The way that the vocals were arranged- with a full range of pitches continually supporting each other- was enhanced by the sheer number of performers. Even though some songs were perhaps a little slower tempo than the rest, the emphasis in general was on keeping the momentum up that so many voices can create.
Though I am not particularly a gospel music fan, the Soweto Gospel Choir succeeded in lifting up my spirits. First of all, it’s great to see performers who are so focused on delivering an energetic product and the quick pace of the show was refreshing. But beyond that, the group’s savory blend of voices and just the sheer force that the vocals came blasting off the stage with was inspiring. Plus, I just can’t resist that old Edwin Hawkins Singers hit “Oh Happy Day.” It is a happy day when so many voices are making that music.