By Mark Jordan
Feb 25, 2010
Detroit Free Press
As a member of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir, Mandla Modawu has performed on some of the world’s greatest concert stages, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House, and in front of some of the most distinguished audiences, including President Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oprah Winfrey.
But it’s a 2003 show in Cape Town, South Africa, that sticks in his mind. Modawu had just joined the year-old choir as a singer and percussionist when it performed at the 46664 Concert to benefit the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The concert, which took its name from the revered human rights leader’s prison number during the years he spent jailed under apartheid, featured such international superstars as Beyoncé, Queen, Peter Gabriel, and Bono and the Edge from U2.
“You got to meet the stars that are bigger than us,” says Modawu of the day that catapulted the 56-member choir to international fame, “and it was for a good cause, the Mandela Foundation. It’s a win-win situation.”
This Monday, Modawu and a stripped-down version of the group will bring their powerful show, a vibrant spectacle that mixes Western and African gospel traditions, to Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 under the direction of executive producer and director Beverly Bryer and recently deceased musical director David Mulovhedzi. The group’s first CD, released the same year, topped the Billboard World Music Chart and won a slew of awards, including best international choir from the American Gospel Music Awards.
Modawu, 31, originally from Pretoria, had just started musical studies at the Central Johannesburg College when he was recruited to join.
“I met the choir through a friend who was a member, Lucas Bok,” says Modawu. “When I met them and we talked, I realized that this was something special, especially touring with a gospel choir. I don’t think it’s ever been done like this in South Africa, in this form.”
Since then, the Soweto Gospel Choir has become an international phenomenon. It is a favorite of international dignitaries, having performed at private functions for Winfrey and Clinton as well as birthday celebrations for Tutu and Mandela. And it is perhaps the only group that can claim to have opened for both the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Céline Dion.
The choir has been equally impressive in the studio. Its second and third studio albums, 2005’s “Blessed” and 2007’s “African Spirit,” won Grammys, and the 2008 concert recording “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre” was also nominated. The choir also won a Grammy for “Down to Earth,” its collaboration with Gabriel from the film “WALL-E.”
Last month, the Soweto Gospel Choir released its fourth studio album, “Grace.” Perhaps reflecting the recent personal trials of the choir — Mulovhedzi was struggling with cancer and eventually died during the sessions, and longtime guitarist Joshua Mcineka, to whom the disc is dedicated, died shortly before they began — the disc represents a turn away from the more jubilant sound of past efforts to the more contemplative sound reflected in the title.
“This record has a combination of the really, really old songs of South Africa and the new songs of South Africa,” says Modawu, who points out that even the album’s few Western numbers, like a reworking of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Andrae Crouch’s “Oh, It Is Jesus,” are presented in a distinctly South African style. “It is more a showcasing of the raw forms of gospel on the whole album. It’s not really a dance album. It’s more spiritual.”
The choir has always had a strong spiritual component to its work. The group regularly collects money to fund charitable endeavors abroad and in South Africa, including Nkosi’s Haven, an orphanage for children who have lost their parents to AIDS.
“We help a lot,” says Modawu. “It is important to us not only that we are successful but that we give back to our people at home. We share our success with them.”