by Marty Lipp
New Jersey Star-Ledger
Thursday December 04, 2008
Gospel music may be as American as sweet-potato pie, but on the other side of the planet, gospel took another path and picked up indigenous sounds from South Africa.
The music, as performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir, which is in the midst of a U.S. tour, has the joyous choral hallelujahs and soaring calls of its American cousin, but it moves to the bouncing polyrhythms of the Johannesburg townships.
Like Ireland’s “Riverdance,” Soweto Gospel Choir polishes traditional music heard in everyday life for international consumption. In 2002, an Australian promoter who heard a performance of South African gospel decided to organize the choir, auditioning both amateur and professional singers for an extended tour of Australia.
“The tour was such a success,” remembered Sipokazi Luzipo, who was selected from those original auditions. “People were going crazy.”
Today, there are two touring companies to meet the demand for the music and Luzipo is the narrator, introducing and explaining the songs, which are sung in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
“Our success still amazes us,” she said.
Luzipo said the group is “more mature” than it was at first, tackling more challenging arrangements.
The choir’s repertoire draws upon various South African church and wedding songs, as well as tunes from the American canon, such as “Oh, Happy Day.” In addition, the group also plays spiritually oriented pop tunes, such as Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Although the group’s albums have earned two Grammy Awards, among other accolades, it is best experienced live. The 24 singers and two drummers wear costumes of eye-popping bright colors and are in constant synchronized motion. Several of the members take turns as lead singers and solo dancers.
In one set piece, the members talk about how music animates their times together on the road. They then recreate a meal together, with several of the men performing a dense, but playful percussion piece with silverware, plates and glasses.
The group has made charity an integral part of their existence: After each performance, they meet with audience members in the lobby and ask for donations for South African children with AIDS. “The little ones can’t do for themselves,” said Luzipo. “We buy them whatever they need.” It has now raised about $300,000 for the charities.
South African gospel has intertwining roots with the American variety — the rhythmic underpinnings of the South African genre come from the township music that eventually found international popularity with Paul Simon’s Graceland album and even “The Lion King.” As early as the 19th century in South Africa, due in part to the influence of missionaries, Christian hymns were composed using indigenous elements and languages. A cappella singing became a mainstay in South African churches of various denominations.
In the 20th century, American popular music as well as gospel seeped into South African music. American gospel, though, itself comes out of African traditions and developed after slaves in America were not allowed to play instruments and found a place to express themselves more freely in church songs.
Like American gospel music, the South African genre and the church itself were havens during a time of oppression. “In the apartheid era, there was so much riots and chaos,” Luzipo said, “The church was a place people had a voice. … We could always cry to God.”
Luzipo said music and singing have been ever present for South Africans. “We sing when babies are born, at weddings, at funerals, it’s just who we are. We are born with music.”