By Jack Majerus
January 27, 2010
BRISTOL — The Soweto Gospel Choir served up gorgeous harmonies and impressive choreography to about 200 appreciative ESPN employees in the company cafeteria Wednesday.
“I thought it was absolutely outstanding, spiritually moving, uplifting and inspirational,” said Ty Frison, studio director. “It kind of took me back to my Baptist days, growing up in the church.”
The choir stopped between East Coast appearances to deliver a powerful 30-minute performance, singing in English and also in some of South Africa’s many dialects.
John A. Walsh, executive editor at ESPN, stood in the throng in the cafeteria and soaked in the music.
“Four 12 years, the company has been working on the challenge of diversity in the workplace and seeing gradual success from year to year,” said Walsh. “But never in those 12 years have we experienced such an energizing, enjoyable and entertaining presentation of the case for diversity.”
ESPN Senior Vice President Jed Drake, who introduced the choir, is coordinating the company’s coverage of the World Cup in South Africa this summer.
Along with the soccer games, the coverage will feature authentic South African music and highlight the diverse people and customs of the country.
Claude Mitchell, coordinating music director at ESPN, said the Soweto Gospel Choir will be featured prominently in the World Cup coverage.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to get the choir here,” said Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer. “Every once in a while, things work out.”
Sipokazi Nxumalo, a lead singer in the choir and its narrator, said the group had seen ESPN on television and was honored and humbled to come to the campus to perform.
She said the choir members have “a family bond” and come from different parts of South Africa, though 90 percent now live in Soweto.
They tour about nine months a year, Nxumalo said, and sometimes get lonesome for South Africa and its climate.
“Sometimes, it’s so far from home,” she said. They’ve learned, though, in five years of touring in the United States, to bring “our big jackets and our warm clothes.”
Though they don’t all speak the various dialects that they sing in, she said they easily learn them through the music.
“It just flows and comes naturally,” she said.
The choir has a four-piece band, but most of the time, Nxumalo said, they use only drums for accompaniment.
“We prefer our audiences to hear the beauty of our harmonies,” she said.
Nxumalo said American audiences are their favorite because of the warm response the people give to the music.
“They’ve always treated us well,” she said.
Nxumalo and about two dozen other professional singers, two of them playing djembe drums, filled the cafeteria space with music.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has toured internationally for years, Drake said, and was featured on the Grammy-award winning Peter Gabriel song, “Down to Earth,” that is part of the soundtrack for the 2008 movie “Wall-E.”
Drake told the gathered employees that the choir would give them “what may be one of the most spectacular performances we’ve had on our campus, ever.”
No one disagreed.