By Walter Tunis
December 13, 2008
As he speaks from his hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kevin Williams is half a world away from home. A three-year member of the Soweto Gospel Choir, he has become a versed global traveler.
The choir stops Sunday at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College.
Williams just carries home with him. As one of the Grammy-winning choir’s 27 touring vocalists, he brings his faith, voice and message of hope wherever he travels.
“As individuals, you can find yourself by yourself,” said the singer from Durban, South Africa. “You could be in your hotel room, where you often look at pictures and think of home.
“But as a choir, we are family. When we’re together, we’re home. When we’re onstage, we know our family members are around us. It takes our mind off the distance of home and the measure of love we’re missing. But we receive that same measure within the choir.”
In a little more than six years, the Soweto Gospel Choir has become one of the most visible world-music enterprises to emerge from post-apartheid South Africa. Formed as a “super choir” by musical director David Mulovhedzi, the group consists of singers predominantly in their late teens and 20s from Soweto and Johannesburg.
“Growing up in South Africa, we knew, as did our parents and our parents’ parents, that one of the main ways of communication was through music,” Williams said.
“That music speaks through many tongues in many different ways. But the songs always make you feel loved. They make you feel good about yourself. It has really made a difference in our lives, especially the spiritual side of the music.”
Language is seldom a barrier for the choir, Williams said. The population of South Africa speaks 11 officially recognized languages. In the choir itself, several members speak four or more languages. Some are fluent in as many as eight.
On the choir’s new concert CD/DVD, “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre,” songs are predominantly sung in Zulu and Sotho, although introductions and explanations are provided in English.
Then there is the repertoire. Much of the music is a cappella. Some is augmented by percussion. Other tunes enhance the singing with surprisingly Americanized rhythm sections. Similarly, mixed with the predominantly traditional African music are established American hymns (“Amazing Grace”) and even pop songs with strongly spiritual casts, notably Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You.”
“It’s the meaning and the motives behind these songs that inspire us,” Williams said. “One of the songs on the album is called ‘World in Union.’ We see that as a plan. As a group from South Africa, we one day hope for a universe of people standing as one.”
For now, though, a number of high-profile fans are standing with the Soweto Gospel Choir’s message of faith and unity. Last summer, the choir performed as part of an all-star concert honoring Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday (other invitees included Annie Lennox, Quincy Jones and Sidney Poitier).
Other fans are non-African artists who have helped introduce world music. Leading that list is Peter Gabriel, who collaborated with the choir on “Down to Earth,” the closing-credits tune from last summer’s Disney/Pixar robot movie “Wall-E.”
“He was one of the guys who really motivated us while we worked with him,” Williams said of Gabriel. “We’ve been really touched by his songs and just by his presence alone.”
But the choir’s spiritual fervor is expressed in any company, Williams said.
“We are the Soweto Gospel Choir,” he said. “The name alone should tell you we sing gospel music. In everything we do, we put God first. … Come to expect, come to receive, come to accept a different sound and a different style of music.”