The Urban Music Scene
December 1, 2008
Throughout world music history, the continent of South Africa is responsible for several musical wonders that pierce the soul and evoke pure enjoyment every time they step on stage. To name a few: Miriam Makeba, who passed recently, was still a beloved vocalist and civil rights activist despite a controversial career. Ever since the Graceland album with Paul Simon, acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has enjoyed success in many capacities. But a truly phenomenal story is the short period of time – six years- in which the Soweto Gospel Choir catapulted to a similar level of international recognition. With their marriage of South African and North America gospel repertoire, touched with other popular inspirational pieces, the choir has uplifted audiences in nearly every corner of the world.
SGC consists of top vocalists mostly in their twenties from the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The well-traveled group of singers, musicians, and dancers has attracted the attention of several top-notch international artists in their own right; including U2 lead vocalist Bono; gospel veteran BeBe Winans; and Motown icon Diana Ross. Their first three discs; Blessed, Voices from Heaven, and African Spirit; spun a colorful canvas of South Africa’s rich musical heritage. A culmination of songs from these studio sessions resurface on their latest CD and DVD recording – Live at The Nelson Mandela Theatre.
SGC mostly sings in their native tongues but add a few selections in English. One key factor in their presentation is their unusual vocal sculpting – weaving effects like bird-like sounds, cascading lead and backing voices, and mind-boggling harmonic structure. The two-man drumming tandem, a major contributor to the African music tradition, accompanies the choir on numerous occasions.
There are many captivating moments within the nineteen tracks on Live at The Nelson Mandela Theatre, but a few of those moments rise a little higher to the occasion. For instance, SGC exercises creative liberties as both traditional African and other familiar compositions – Bob Marley’s classic Reggae hit “One Love” and the classic spiritual “This Little Light of Mine” – are cleverly intertwined on two separate medleys. Woza Meli Wami (“Come My Savior”) is an explosive expression of praise between the drummers and vocalists. Even the interpretation of Amazing Grace provides a refreshing vocal tapestry from the various soloists.
With the possible exception of “World In Union,” (the theme for the Rugby World Cup) which could spark more soulful injections, Live at The Nelson Mandela Theatre delivers solid listening for gospel and secular music lovers. This Shanachie Entertainment release should also continue to solidify SGC’s international following and rejuvenate an awareness of South Africa’s inevitable contributions to world music.