By Lesego Madumo
City of Johannesburg
20 February 2009
The Soweto Gospel Choir will perform at the Oscars – the first time a South African act has received such an invitation. The choir has been nominated for an award for its song, Down to Earth.
Joburg’S pride, the Grammy-Award winning Soweto Gospel Choir, will be performing at the 81st Academy Awards on Sunday, 22 February.
It’s the first time the choir will perform at the Oscars, as the awards are better known, as well as the first time a South African act will perform at the annual red carpet event. The ceremony, taking place at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, in the United States, will be broadcast on MNET at 7.30pm on Monday, 23 February.
One of the choir’s many songs, a collaboration with songwriters Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. It already has a Grammy Award under its belt, for Best Song Written For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media. Down To Earth is the theme tune for the Disney animated movie, Wall-E, which itself has been nominated for Best Animated Feature Film.
The 26-member choir, which sings in a battery of African languages – ranging from English, Xhosa and Zulu to Sotho, including Kiswahili, the language of Kenya and Tanzania – is expected to perform several songs on the night. These include Tshepa Thapelo, Khumbaya, Weeping, Noyana and Thula Mama.
Although organisers of the Oscars are keeping mum about details of the choir’s performance, “it is sure to be one of the evening’s musical highlights”, says Debbi de Souza, the choir’s publicist.
Its executive producer and musical director, Beverly Bryer, says the choir’s invitation to perform at the Oscars is an “unbelievable accolade”.
“They have achieved so much since the start of their musical journey five years ago, but being on stage and singing before a worldwide audience, at the most prestigious of all awards ceremonies, is an honour they will always treasure.”
Bryer believes that every now and then, an artist or group that has the rare ability to transcend cultural boundaries and connect with diverse audiences through the power of their music comes along. “[The] Soweto Gospel Choir has proven to be a musical force capable of such wonders.”
Since the release of its debut album towards the end of 2002, Blessed, the choir has bagged an array of accolades and reached several milestones, among them two Grammy Awards, two number one Billboard World Music Chart albums, a Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music, an American Gospel Music Award for Best Choir, a US Gospel Music Award for Best International Choir, a South African Music Award for Best Live DVD and Metro FM Award for Best Gospel Album for African Spirit.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has performed alongside musical greats such as Peter Gabriel, U2’s Bono, Robert Plant, Vusi Mahlasela, Johnny Clegg, Diana Ross, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jimmy Cliff and Bebe Winans.
The choir has performed for Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey; it has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has performed at various sold-out concerts in Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand and Germany. They also sang at the 75th birthday of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu; Tutu is the choir’s patron.
Original members of the group hailed only from Soweto; however, these days auditions are held with singers from around the country. Most of the choir’s performances are accompanied by a four-piece band, dancers and percussionists. It has 26 members, ranging in age from 16 to 40.
And it’s not just about the music; the choir has also been praised for its charitable initiative Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which has raised more than R10-million for children and families affected by and infected with HIV/Aids.
“2009 is off to a stellar start for the choir,” says De Souza. It is well “poised for their biggest year yet … the sky is the limit for these amazing cultural ambassadors”.