By L. Kent Wolgamott
Lincoln Star Journal
Nov 07, 2008
Sipokazi Luzipo is happy she’s coming back to Lincoln.
She’s the narrator of and a singer in the Soweto Gospel Choir, which performed at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in March 2007 and is back at the Lied Friday.
“We’d rather come back,” she said. “We usually have built up an audience in a city. They’re familiar with our faces, and we’re familiar with the vibe of that place. Then we bring in a new show for them.”
The new show this year is titled “African Spirit.” Here’s how Luzipo described it:
“It’s more of a spiritual journey this time around. We’ve taken on some big numbers, like Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Remember You,’ and we’ve still got our popular songs, like ‘Oh Happy Day.’ We’re developing vocally. We’ve been together for about six years, and we are starting to mature.”
The choir was created in 2002 by executive producer Beverly Bryer and David Mulovhedzi, who serves as the choir’s director. Its first U.S. recording, “Voices From Heaven,” went to No. 1 on the Billboard World Music charts, and the group made its first triumphant North American tour.
“Blessed,” the choir’s next chart-topping album, won the 2007 traditional world music Grammy Award and “African Spirit” followed it up the charts. The choir’s newest CD is “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre,” a spectacular recording that captures the group at its most moving and powerful recorded in Johannesburg.
“Our success amazes us,” Luzipo said. “It not only amazes us, it humbles us. We have achieved in six years what many artists never achieve in their entire careers. For us, the Grammy means the universe is saying you’re on the right track, keep it there.”
That success is particularly pleasing for Luzipo for the attention and praise that is lavished on her homeland, making her feel like she is part of that country’s musical contributions to the rest of the world.
“People might link us with Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo,” she said. “That’s how it works because we’re all from South Africa and we are all linked, no matter the style of music we sing.”
Western audiences may have heard Makeba or Ladysmith or even have gotten a taste of township jive courtesy of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. But most aren’t familiar with the music the choir brings to the stage.
“People have never really heard South African gospel,” Luzipo said. “It’s all about people getting to see the beauty that can come out of South Africa. South Africa has 11 languages, we sing in six. We’ve got every nationality in the choir. We’ve got so much diversity it’s not funny. When it comes to music, it’s easier than speaking. Speaking the languages can be difficult, but when it comes to singing in that language it’s easier.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir show is also filled with dancing, which Luzipo says is where the choir is at its best.
“Some of the things are really original stuff, especially when it comes to the dances.,” she said. “Some of the music is written by us, too. We are a very young choir, the ages are 23 to 39. There’s a lot of energy in this choir.”
Even for a young group, international tours that last for months can get to be a grind. But that doesn’t happen in the United States, even though the tours here are the longest of each year.
“Some of the tours do get long,” she said. “There are places that are really cold, where we have to wear the heavy coats and it is minus 1. The choir loves this country. There’s just a bond between the choir and America. We can relate more to certain countries than others. Three months in America will work, but not Germany.”
For Luzipo, the performances themselves make the tours worth the effort. Doing the shows is fun and uplifting, both for the choir members and the audience, she said.
“That’s why I make it,” Luzipo said. “It’s not about standing there and singing your lungs out. There’s so much fun in the songs. That’s what we are about. It’s about changing people through our music and our dance. Standing on the side of the stage, when you see people smiling when they’d come in serious, that’s when you know you’re reaching them.
“When we get to ‘Oh Happy Day’ (always the choir’s closing number), everybody’s up, everybody’s dancing. By the end of the show, in every single venue we’ve been to, everybody is on their feet.”