By Cassaundra Baber
Jan 28, 2010
Imagine years of experience being transmitted through a single burst of unified song.
Imagine music as a pure expression of joy, pain and faith.
Imagine that music reaching people of all ages, races and religions.
You won’t have just imagine it tonight when the Soweto Gospel Choir performs at 8 p.m. at the Stanley Center for the Arts.
The Grammy-award winning South African choir has, for seven years, been leaving audiences in tears with their exuberant and riotous form of song and dance, based on their South African roots.
“(The show) takes the audience through a spiritual journey,” said choir member Thembisa Khuzwayo. “We sing not only about the love of God, but the love of our nation and the heroes that brought it out of its tragic past; we sing about the love of life, even the love of one another as human beings.”
That raw and pure expression marks the beauty and uniqueness of African music, said Michael “Doc” Woods, professor of music at Hamilton College.
“When a person opens their mouth to sing, they’re not singing because they know the right notes; they’re singing because they’re bringing years and years of experience to that instant,” Woods said. “At that moment, you’re hearing all their history and their entire experience.”
South African history – riddled with strife – automatically finds a place in the Soweto choir’s repertoire – whether on stage or off, Khuzwayo said.
“This choir comes from a nation and a continent that has been plagued by war, famine and diseases that leave helpless victims all around, and it’s only fitting that anyone who’s had the blessing of coming out of it all alive must consider those that are less fortunate and needy,” said Khuzwayo, referring to the group’s HIV/AIDS foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, for which they’ve raised millions. “We, too, must do our part in helping humanity, because God has carried us to parts of the world that we didn’t even know existed. So it’s only right that we share that blessing.”
And what a blessing it is, Khuzwayo said.
“For anyone coming out of South Africa’s previously disadvantaged past, in areas like Soweto, it’s definitely an amazing privilege and a dream to be a member of this choir, even more so now because of all its achievements in the past seven years,” Khuzwayo said.
Along with two Grammy awards, the choir has charted No. 1 on the Billboard World Music Chart and performed on shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.”
They were the first South African group to ever appear on the Academy Awards, on which they performed with John Legend. They’ve shared the stage with such stars as Bono, Aretha Franklin, Josh Groban and Diana Ross.
They’ve recently been chosen to be featured in Pepsico’s World Cup International Football ad campaign along with Akon and Keri Hilson.
The fame the choir has attained is no accident, Woods asserts.
It’s the music – from the depths of a nation, and the souls of generations – that has moved them forward, Woods said. And it comes from more than a scale of notes and rhythmic beats, he said. It comes from a place of spirituality – an innate part of African music.
“For most African people, there’s no concept of life without God. If you ask them what it would be like to be an atheist, they couldn’t even express themselves, because it would be like looking at a jet black curtain,” Woods said. “It’s consuming. It’s not something they do on Sunday alone.”
And that spirituality, mixed with African sounds and contemporary music, makes for an experience that moves audiences through a gamut of emotions, Khuzwayo said.
“Every song is full of excitement,” Khuzwayo said. “Your eyes and soul will love it.”