By Jeremy D. Bonfiglo
February 25, 2010
BERRIEN SPRINGS – In its eight-year existence, the Soweto Gospel Choir has become South Africa’s richest export.
Last year, the traditional world music group won the Grammy Award for “Down to Earth,” its “Wall-E” collaboration with Peter Gabriel – the choir’s third Grammy and fourth Grammy nomination in the past three years. “Down to Earth” also was nominated for an Academy Award, and when the choir performed it during the Oscar telecast alongside John Legend, they became the first South African ensemble to play the Academy stage.
“It’s all just unbelievable,” choir member, soloist and dancer Thembisa Khuzwayo says. “We never really thought we could be nominated for a Grammy and when we won it the first time, it was too exciting to contain. And then, last year, to be on the red carpet at the Oscars and to be the first South Africans to perform there … we just have so many blessings. It’s like we are ambassadors of our country, and we are really proud of that.”
On Tuesday, the 26-member touring ensemble will bring its energetic stage show to Andrews University’s Howard Performing Arts Center with a sound that is stylistically reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and may be familiar to Western audiences through the sonic experiments of pop music stars such as Gabriel and Paul Simon.
Based in the South African choral tradition that spread from Christian missions to mine workers toiling in deplorable conditions, the Soweto Gospel Choir sings in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages, including Zulu, Xhosa and English.
Since rising to fame in 2003 with its appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concert in Cape Town, which also featured Gabriel, Bono, Queen and the Eurythmics, the Soweto Gospel Choir has prominently presented a blend of South Africa’s church choral legacy, the region’s myriad vocal traditions, as well as secular pop and Jamaican reggae songs.
“We grow up with these songs,” Khuzwayo says. “We picked it up from our mothers, and they picked it up from their mothers. These are songs you hear at weddings and funerals and just every day. We are very proud to be able to play a part in keeping that culture alive.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir formed in November of 2002, and released its first album, “Voices of Heaven,” a month later. Within three weeks of its release, the album reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s World Music Chart in the United States. The choir won Grammys for its second release, “Blessed,” its third CD, “African Spirit,” and was nominated for its next release, “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre.”
Soweto’s latest CD, “Grace,” released three weeks ago, is currently No. 12 on Billboard’s World Music Chart. In addition to spiritual material from the depth of South Africa, the 19-song set includes renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Jerusalem” and arrangements of material by Simon & Garfunkel, Little Feat and Andre Crouch.
“We do quite a bit on this CD,” Khuzwayo says, “because we want to show how we’ve grown from all the people we’ve worked with.”
That growing list includes everyone from Robert Plant to Akon. But, Khuzwayo says, although the choir covers a song such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the arrangement is most distinctively South African.
“The South African sound is very unique,” Khuzwayo says. “We’ve found that people really appreciate it all over the world. It’s been very important for South Africa that we keep our music. So although we do some contemporary songs, it still is done with that South African sound.”