By Michael Huebner
The Birmingham News
February 14, 2010
Saturday, Alys Stephens Center
Four stars out of five
The South African choral tradition, spread from Christian missions to mine workers toiling in deplorable conditions, has persevered into the 21st century. Ladysmith Black Mambazo brought it to the world’s attention in the 1970s. The Soweto Gospel Choir, whose dazzling performance lit up the Alys Stephens Center Saturday, has married it to American gospel.
Best known for its a cappella singing, this Grammy-winning group does more than that. The 10 women and 15 men at this show are skilled choreographers and dancers, drummers, instrumentalists and vocal soloists. They perform in kaleidoscopic costumes with zebra patterns and bright hues. In two kinetic hours, they sampled Zulu dance, sang Mozart and Simon and Garfunkel, and break-danced.
But South Africa, and the quest for peace and unity, are at the heart of the choir’s repertoire. “Asimbonanga” looked to Nelson Mandela for guidance. “Mbube” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) gave comfort in the midst of danger. “Oh Happy Day” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” linked two continents. They sang in Zulu, Xhosa and English, but their music transcended the texts.
Most evocative were the kicks and stomps of Gumboot dancing, vocal stylings reminiscent of Miriam Makeba, the distinctive, Zulu-rooted “mbaqanga” guitar riffs, fluttering high-pitched vocal ululations and the brilliant choral sound that can only be made in South Africa.
One number drew from a Mozart piano concerto, but was an uneasy hybrid. At times, the group’s exuberance had the pitch drifting to the high side, and they could have done without the synthesized strings in another arrangement.
Otherwise, this was an impressive, tight-knit performance that spoke well for two vibrant traditions and the sharing of cultures.