By Jessie Moniz
January 20, 2010
The Royal Gazette
The Bermuda Festival for the Performing Arts kicks off tonight with an old favourite, the award winning Soweto Gospel Choir.
Lead singer Sipokazi Nxumalo, 26, told The Royal Gazette that in the four years since the group last visited, they have grown bigger and better than ever.
“I think our sound has changed since we were in Bermuda in 2006,” said Mrs. Nxumalo. “We are now more familiar with each other’s voices. Our sound is much more tight.”
During their time away, they have released two new albums, ‘African Spirit’ (2007) and ‘Grace’ this year.
They have won two Grammy awards for Best Traditional World Album and were nominated in 2008 for a third Grammy.
Their album ‘Grace’ includes ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ sung with legendary American singer Aretha Franklin, which was a dream come true for Mrs. Nxumalo.
“The show is at a higher level,” she said. “Even when we listen to the ‘Grace’ CD, we become so tearful. We called our latest album ‘Grace’, because we have seen so much grace in our own lives. You can sense that in some of our new songs.”
Mrs. Nxumalo is originally from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She was one of four children born to a single mother. She dreamed of being a singer from an early age and sang with her church. Unfortunately, when she graduated from highschool her mother didn’t have the funds to send her onward.
At 18-years-old she auditioned for ‘Popstars’ a South African version of the television show ‘American Idol’.
“But they were looking for skinny people with long hair,” said Mrs. Nxumalo.
Although she didn’t fit the profile physically, her voice did catch the organisers’ attention.
She was put into a programme called ‘Siya Phezulu’, a type of professional music camp, designed for soloists who did not meet the popstar criteria.
She was eventually invited to audition for the newly formed Soweto Gospel Choir by one of the executive producers, Beverly Bryer.
“They loved me,” she said. She easily beat off the competition from queues of other eager would-be singers. She’d seen some of the singers in those queues performing on television.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of it but not everyone could be chosen,” she said.
Even more miraculous, she Even more miraculous, she was made lead singer, even though many of the other people chosen for the group had more experience than she did.
At first the group just expected to make a quick test trip to Australia to see if the rest of the world liked African gospel music.
It turned out that the rest of the world did dig African gospel music. In Australia, their popularity sky-rocketed. They went on from there to the United Kingdom, to the United States and then to Singapore.
The Soweto Gospel Choir started off with 20-odd members and have grown to more than 50 members today.
Mrs. Nxumalo said she is particularly pleased to be singing gospel, as that is where she got her start in the first place.
“I can identify with the sound they are looking for, and also the personal qualities they are looking for,” she said.
The spiritual message in their music was “everything” to her.
“For me, personally, this is not just about the singing,” she said. “It feels like a ministry. We have been given this opportunity by God to tour the world. Every time I am given the platform I sing from the deepest part of my heart, because I know that it is a ministry.”
She said they have often had people come up to them after the show to say they felt healed by the music.
“It is about reaching down into their soul,” said Mrs. Nxumalo. “Some people have said ‘ I felt like I could have committed suicide and that one song turned my life around.”
Despite hundreds of concerts since she began, she said she still feels nervous before a performance.
“We are humbled by each audience,” said Mrs. Nxumalo. “They have been so wonderful to us. Some of the venues are so big — Carnegie Hall, The Sydney Opera House. When you hear of the great stars that have performed there you become a bit nervous.
“The Sydney Opera House was one of the biggest places. I never imagined that I would be where I am.”
She said her own favourites are classics like ‘Oh Happy Day’ and ‘Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters’.
“Those are some of the songs our mothers would play when we were little,” she said. “I never thought that one day I would meet Aretha Franklin and do one of her songs.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir have added a charitable arm to their productions called Nkosi’s Haven Vukani. The choir takes money donated by audiences around the world and uses it to help orphans in South Africa.
The foundation supports families and organisations that receive little or no government support.
Through touring worldwide the choir has raised international awareness of children orphaned by their parents dying of AIDS.
“When we come back from tours we buy the children whatever they need,” said Mrs. Nxumalo. “Sometimes they don’t have blankets or food. We felt so humbled that our success doesn’t just benefit us but the community at large. That is a great pride of ours.”
She said they were looking forward to returning to Bermuda.
“Bermuda was the first island we ever went to,” she said. “The reception was so beautiful. This time we come with a much larger sound and a better song. Our performance is just going to blow them away.”
“We have been travelling for the past nine months,” said Mrs. Nxumalo. “We have been to the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and now we have just started an American tour.”
When this tour ends, the group is eager to go back to South Africa for the Fifa World Cup which starts in South Africa in June. “We will be very busy with the World Cup,” said Mrs. Nxumalo.
Things have also changed on a personal level since she was last here. She has now been married to a dancer in the group for over a year.
“I am lucky that my husband is in the choir,” she said. “He is moral support when things are difficult. My husband is a big soccer fan. So I am obligated to fall in love with it (soccer). Most of the guys with us are soccer fan. Finally South Africa gets to host the World Cup!”
She said there would be special Soweto Gospel Choir performances as part of the World Cup festivities.
The Soweto Gospel Choir is on from tonight to Saturday at the Ruth Seaton James Auditorium at CedarBridge Academy. All performances are at 8.30 p.m. except for tonight’s performance which is at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $25 for students and $65 for adults. As of press time, tickets were only available for the Saturday show. Other shows are sold out. See http://www.bdatix.bm/ for ticket information.