By Luke Z. Fenchel
December 4, 2008
The Soweto Gospel Choir, the prodigiously talented orchestra from South Africa’s South Western Township, may not be the first and still most popular group to blend American spirituals and African rhythms — that would be Ladysmith Black Mambazo — but that doesn’t mean they are any less captivating to catch live.
This Friday, Dec. 5, the Choir will stop by the State Theatre as part of their 48-city North American tour; their distinctive brand of spiritual and spirited music is sure to entertain and inspire local audiences.
Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $36.50 for Gold Circle seating, $29.50 for Sections A, B and C, and $26.50 for Section D; they are available at the State Theatre Box Office at 105 W. State St., online at www.sateofithaca.com, or by calling 277-8283.
Formed to celebrate the unique and inspirational power of African Gospel music, the Choir is an awe-inspiring vocal ensemble, performing in eight different languages, in a program of tribal, traditional and popular African and Western gospel. Earthy rhythms, rich harmonies, a cappella and charismatic performances combine to uplift the soul and express South Africa’s great hopes for the future. The 26-strong choir is dedicated to sharing the joy of faith through music with audiences around the world.
On their most recent release, a live album called African Spirit, the Choir offers an apt introduction: “Tonight we will be taking you on a wonderful spiritual journey with a variety of songs that deal with the upliftment and strength of the human spirit. Whether expressed through the love of God, the love of our fellow man, the love of coming together as a people, or simply the love of life and all the beauty it has to offer us, tonight you will be hearing spiritual songs.”
This is an all-encompassing spirituality. Reached just before a show in Harlem, New York music director Shimmy Jiyane explained his group’s broad appeal: “We always say that you don’t have to be religious to enjoy our show. Anybody who loves music or loves change will like it.” Jiyane continued: “Maybe you want to change your life, or just change your night, we try to give the people the opportunity to do that. So many things we are doing on stage aim to affect how you think and how you feel…and bring positive energy.”
The Choir emphasizes the polyglot and multilingual nature of South Africa while underscoring fundamental commonalities among and across cultures. “We have eleven languages in South Africa, and we want to showcase the many languages of our country,” Jiyae said. “Language is very important, and so we try to use as many as possible to better communicate with people.”
But that aim doesn’t detract from the universality of the Choir’s repertoire. “You don’t have to understand all of the lyrics to enjoy the show. Music is a universal language,” Jiyane exclaimed. “The drum-beat that we play is the thing that moves the people together, but the sounds and dances do as well. The energy and the love of the choir moves and affects most people.”
Unlike Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who are exclusively a cappella, Soweto Gospel Choir incorporates synthesizers, drums and other instruments. Occasionally, this detracts from the overall approach; but often, as on the crescendoing “I’ll Remember You,” it buttresses the moving spirit.
“Ladysmith and Black Umfolsoi have paved the way for us,” Jiyae noted. “And every time we get up there and sing we pay respect to them and think of them. We aim to carry on the tradition of those groups.”