John P. McLaughlin,
The Vancouver Province
October 30, 2008
Bongani Ncube has been with the Soweto Gospel Choir for almost three years now and he figures the only real training he needed to win the initial audition was, frankly, just being born and bred in Soweto.
An acronym for the South Western Townships area outside Johannesburg, Soweto is an amazingly diverse place and home to both the affluent and many, many indigent folk living in makeshift shacks.
But the way Ncube has it, seeing a satellite dish on some of those shacks is not out of place. And anyway, rich or poor, people seem to live in a utopian kind of sweet concord.
“Yes. They all gel in one place,” says Ncube, “all one harmonious place.
“The poverty is actually hidden by the big smiles on people.”
And they all sing, all the time, it seems. Sing, sing, sing. And apparently you can’t swing a cane without hitting a musician. The place seems absolutely imbued with music. In fact, Ncube first auditioned as a bass player for the choir and was accepted but was then asked, can he sing? Yes. And can he dance? Absolutely. But where he’s from, everybody sings and dances. You’d be some kind of freak if you couldn’t.
And just like African American communities in the U.S., the church is a pivotal part of society in Soweto, a social club, a community centre and the place where all the singing comes from. Everyone in the Soweto Gospel Choir first started singing in church and it’s in fact really just an extension of church, says Ncube.
And like the history of blacks in the American south, the reliance on both the church and music was born of difficulty.
“I think more than anything the struggles and the battles and the hassles we’ve had as Africans drew us nearer to a source of help,” says Ncube. “In this case we’re talking about God. The more hassled we were, the closer we got to God and the more we had to relieve ourselves of the pain, we started singing. And that happens everywhere, not only in South Africa. Where there was a form of oppression you’ll find that people gather and sing because that kept them going.”
The double-Grammy winning Soweto Gospel Choir is comprised of 52 members divided into two entities, one currently touring Europe while Ncube’s group is in the U.S. and Canada. They are on the road about nine months of the year and at 28, Ncube has been to countries his family could never have dreamed of, from Asia to Europe to North America. His favourite so far? Fiji.
But with all of that one of his favourite gigs was in preparation for the choir’s current Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre album when they did, in fact, sing for Mandela at his home in Soweto. Ncube was quite taken with the man.
“Ah, he’s very funny,” he says. “He’s got an extreme sense of humour. You can’t measure his sense of humour, it doesn’t even measure on the Richter scale. Despite all the positive statements and encouragement he said to us, I only remember him for his humour. It just overshadows everything.”