By Sally Friedman,
December 05, 2008
Music, we know, is good for the soul. It’s even more meaningful when it comes from the soul, exemplified by the critically acclaimed, world-celebrated Soweto Gospel Choir.
The ensemble, formed to celebrate and share the inspirational power of African gospel music, appears at the Kimmel Center for a concert at 8 p.m., Dec. 10.
Soweto, one of the most beleaguered of South African regions during the upheavals of Apartheid, is the choir’s birthplace. Its roots are buried deep in the struggle for freedom and its message is one of hope in the face of oppression.
“We try to bring our message all over the globe because we believe it is a very important one,” said Bongani (“Honeye”) Ncube, who joined the choir as a musician two and a half years ago. Musicians in the Soweto Gospel Choir also sing and dance as part of the 26-member troupe traveling in North America. Another group is performing simultaneously in Europe.
Mr. Ncube, who spoke from Boston where the Soweto Gospel Choir had just landed after performances in Florida, feels privileged to be part of an ensemble that has been lauded for its songs of faith and persistence through the long and painful Apartheid chapter.
“Music can tell a story that even words sometimes cannot,” he said.
The choir, which draws its members from the churches and communities around Soweto, operates very much as an ensemble. There are no “stars,” and music and dance solos alternate among the members of the choir.
Mr. Ncube, a former South African basketball player, had visited the United States as an athlete in earlier years. But being part of the famous Soweto choir, he insists, is even more gratifying.
“As we spread our story, we are fortunate to be welcomed by audiences all over the world, and it’s clear that even when our songs are not in the language of the listeners, they are clearly understood. That makes us feel wonderful!” said Mr. Ncube.
Former audience members have included Nelson Mandela, former president Bill Clinton and countless other national leaders and dignitaries.
The Soweto choir has also collaborated with artists like U2’s Bono, Celine Dion and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.
In 2007, the choir won the coveted Grammy Award for its album Blessed, marking a major milestone for the ensemble. Selections from Blessed, as well as some holiday favorites, will be featured at the Kimmel Center on Dec. 10.
“For me, some of the most meaningful songs are about missing people you love – and when you tour without your family, that becomes even more meaningful,” said Mr. Ncube, who says he enjoys the troupe’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s iconic “I Remember You.”
The sheer spectacle of the group, clad in brilliantly colored costumes, have led critics to insist that the Soweto Gospel Choir is easier felt than explained.
“Nothing can really prepare you for the riot of exuberance or depth of emotion,” raved one critic from The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper.
For Mr. Ncube, that praise is both heartily appreciated, and right on target.
“People who know nothing about our culture stand and cheer for us, and that’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “Like they say, music is the best messenger of all.”