Soweto Gospel Choir’s World Music Earns It a Third Grammy Nomination
By Mike Joyce
The Washington Post
Friday, December 12, 2008; WE07
Just before its Burlington, Vt., show last week, the Soweto Gospel Choir got some great news: Its latest release, “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre,” had earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary world music album.
“We were all overwhelmed,” says Kevin Williams of the internationally acclaimed South African ensemble. The news led to an unforgettable concert. “There’s no word that can describe that performance — only the energy and gratitude that came off the stage can describe how it was.”
That makes three album nominations in three years, and so far, so good: The choir has taken home top honors twice.
“It’s only God and all the hard work we all did putting it together,” says Williams, speaking from Soweto’s tour stop in Upstate New York. The 26-member ensemble, now on the last leg of a three-month tour, performs tonight at Strathmore.
An acronym for South Western Township, Soweto is on the outskirts of Johannesburg and is the site of the 1976 student uprising that helped ignite the anti-apartheid movement. When auditions were first held in 2002, musical director David Mulovhedzi chose gifted singers throughout Soweto, Johannesburg and the surrounding area to augment his Holy Jerusalem Choir and form a “super choir.”
By the time Williams auditioned, three years later, the choir had established itself as a powerful force in gospel music around the world.
“When we came along, hundreds and hundreds of people were lined up for the auditions, and they lasted for days,” says Williams, who sings tenor and plays guitar in the group. “When I was picked I was so excited because the choir travels around the world, reaching the unreached, touching the untouched, through our music, through what we sing.”
Since its founding six years ago, the choir has earned numerous honors and attracted a global audience, delighted by its stirring lead vocals, rich harmonies, colorful garb and tirelessly animated choreography.
Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an acknowledged and powerful influence, the choir forges richly textured a cappella harmonies, but it also employs percussionists and a band that draws on global influences, traditional and contemporary.
Now and then, for instance, you might hear a little Memphis soul guitar lick peeking through the imaginatively woven arrangements, and when the focus shifts to the Johannesburg house music known as kwaito, the influence of rap and hip-hop couldn’t be more obvious.
“In our country we have 11 official languages, and we sing in six of them,” Williams explains. “Our music is also very much versatile — as a musician, it’s your interpretation — what you feel from the song and the dance.”
Among the choir’s biggest boosters are several pop artists who have collaborated with the group, including Bono, Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel. (Gabriel and the choir received a Grammy nomination last week for best motion picture song for “Down to Earth,” from the Disney/Pixar film “Wall·E.”)
Williams, who grew up speaking English in the South African province KwaZulu-Natal, views the choir as family now. Yet the group’s multicultural repertoire posed numerous challenges at first.
“I didn’t know how to speak in the other languages,” says the 28-year-old musician. “But now I’ve learned the songs and their meanings, and as we’ve been touring the guys have been teaching me other things. It’s actually fun, because we are learning each other’s cultures.”
Along with traditional hymns and songs — delivered primarily in Zulu, Sotho and English on the tour — the choir also covers songs by Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”) and Bob Marley (“One Love”), each with an inspirational or compassionate theme.
And what inspires the ensemble? Williams points to “the experiences we’ve had as a people and as a nation, knowing that the pains that we have been through have been preparation for our destiny. Our last show was called “Blessed,” and we are really are blessed to have come this far.”
Of course, having the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (an official patron of the choir) and Nelson Mandela doesn’t hurt, either. The group recently performed at Mandela’s AIDS awareness 46664 concert and at his 90th birthday concert. “Knowing where he comes from, we respect him so much for that,” Williams says. “We can’t believe that we are actually singing for this earthly king of ours.”
The choir is battling AIDS on another front, too. It has raised more than $1 million for its charity, Nkosi’s Haven, a Johannesburg facility that cares for families affected by AIDS.
Williams is looking forward to returning to South Africa when the tour ends, and he always enjoys visiting Soweto. “It’s one of the biggest tourist attractions now. But when we go there, we think of the people who have been hurt and pained. We can only thank God that for where it is now — it’s so exciting because people make you feel so at home. That’s the place to be when you come to Johannesburg.”
Still, he’s not counting on much leisure time. “We tour for 10 months. If we get two weeks off, we’ll rest maybe for two days, then go back to rehearsals,” he says. “We don’t want to relax much or get lazy. We always want to keep the energy level very high.”