By Jane Norris
November 20, 2008
Charlottesville Daily Progress
From song to song, Bongani Ncube’s duties in the Soweto Gospel Choir switch from singing to playing bass to dancing. Sometimes, he finds himself doing all three at once.
At those times there’s no limit to his exuberance — except for the electrical cord on his bass.
Were it not for the cord, “I would be dancing in the grandstands,” Ncube said cheerfully. That’s one reason why audience members who head to the Paramount Theater to hear the Grammy Award-winning choir may want to keep an eye on the bass player if Bob Marley’s “One Love” ends up on the program.
“That’s one of my personal favorites,” Ncube said.
On the choir’s new CD, “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre,” “One Love” is performed in a medley with the Zulu song “Avulekile Amasango,” or “The Doors of Heaven are Wide Open.” The CD and DVD were released Oct. 3, just in time for the choir’s North American tour of 48 cities.
Here’s hoping Ncube has brought an extra-long cord on tour, because the audience in the recording went wild for the medley, and even a listener tethered by a short headphone cord needed some discipline to sit still. (Sitting still isn’t a requirement during the concert, thank goodness.)
Twenty-nine members strong, the choir sings gospel and inspirational music in six languages, including Zulu and Sotho. Sometimes, the choir is in standard four-part harmony with soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts. At other times, Ncube said, “we often split the altos and sopranos into two more parts,” which adds richer layers of harmony.
On the Zulu song “Ziyamazi’unelusi,” or “The Sheep Know Their Shepherd,” the vocal parts resonate strongly even while the singers are humming.
The stirring call-and-response form draws on strong voices from all parts. An alto may lead one song and a tenor the next. Members in vividly colored costumes with bold graphic designs take turns dancing and singing.
“All of us sing and dance,” said Ncube, who goes by the nickname Honey because “everyone thinks I’m sweet,” he said with a warm laugh.
Folks who aren’t familiar with the choir’s sound can check out the new album, or the two CDs that won Grammys for best traditional world music album — “Blessed,” which won in 2006, and “African Spirit,” which picked up the trophy the following year.
Many songs offer praise and thanksgiving, while others urge listeners to hand their problems over to a higher power in prayer. On the new CD, one song is an interpretation of Psalm 23. But inspiration can come from many sources, so such secular songs as “One Love” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You” slide seamlessly into the programs.
There’s even one love song, which Ncube said is sung in Zulu. The program includes “a bit of everything,” and fans can expect the evening to be “emotional and soul touching,” he said.
Common to all the numbers is a call to unity and community that transcends language, nationality and creed.
“Our music is more spiritual music,” Ncube said. “At the end of the day, you love someone and someone loves you back. You need a song that brings everyone.”