Concert Review of Soweto Gospel Choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA
March 12, 2010
The Urban Music Scene
For less than a decade, The Soweto Gospel Choir have blessed the music community and encouraged the masses with their potent mix of Western and African gospel traditions. Their performances across the world are sparked with unspeakable joy in every note they sing and every step they dance. Their reputation has also afforded them to collaborate with a variety of high profile artists and sing for audiences of influential people such as Oprah Winfrey, Desmond Tutu, Mandela and former President Clinton. Besides their concerts, they are involved in the community, especially raising funds for Nkosi’s Haven which supports AIDS orphans establishments. With much time invested in touring and commitments to special events, SGC consists of two choirs.
Recently their hearts have been heavy since the recent passing of SGC’s original musical director, David Mulovhedzi (whom the choir also named Father), who was responsible for organizing the choir from day one. I had a brief opportunity to speak with SGC soloist and narrator Sipokazi Luzipo who spoke highly of Mulovhedzi’s influence not only as a musician but as a caring figure towards everyone: “He was a like a father to us young South Africans. Whatever we needed, he was always able to provide.” Mulovhedzi and executive producer/director Beverly Byers founded the choir in 2002, never imagining the depth of their ministry would touch many lives beyond their home country. Their first disc, Voices from Heaven, was released the same year, a crowning achievement considering they won many awards and topped the Billboard World Music Charts. From this point on, SGC has etched a successful legacy which continues to build with every tour and ministry involvement.
There are a few stops on the recent tour in which SGC administers special workshops for the youth. “It is mostly fun numbers to give the students the feel of gospel but not too heavy. It is basically just to educate the children about South Africa,” explains Luzipo. While visiting First Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington on March 12th, SGC covered some of their most popular treasures from their body of work, including their latest release from Shanachie Entertainment, Grace. Without a doubt, the choir’s engaging presentation always surpasses expectations. The staging was fairly simple, but their harmonies and dancing (choreographed by choir master Shimmy Jiyane) were a complex yet glorious work of art. The later especially drew many rounds of applause throughout. Their exuberant voices were occasionally accented with various mannerisms from clicks to yelps. The accompaniment of just two dynamic hand drummers was more than enough to compliment their voices. Their bright colored traditional costumes designed by Lyn Leventhorpe added to the festivities.
SGC was actually part of a program featuring two Grammy Award winning choirs coordinated by the American Directors Association Northwestern Division Conference (the other being the equally astounding Phoenix Choir). It was truly tough picking the highlights from their one-hour set. Yet what makes SGC excel the most is the connection of the solo or duet vocals that feeds off those rich African traditional harmonies. From Grace, there were three selections: “Emarabeni/Nkomo Ka Baba” about the African wedding culture; “Mangisondele Nkosi Yam” (“Let Me Be Nearer My Lord”) spotlighting the intricate Zulu harmonies of SGC’s basses and tenors; and the Andre Crouch classic, “Oh! It Is Jesus,” sucessfully spins African and Western musical cultures. Other selections included the popular hymn from the 19th century “At Calvary” (sung in the Sotho dialect) that moved the audiences’ emotions; “Swing Down,” where SGC grasps the concept of vocal swing; and “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins brought everyone to their feet within an instant.
As for those who want to audition for the choir when SGC advertises for openings, understandably the interest is always demanding. “There are so many people that want to see themselves overseas as a part of this great choir,” says Luzipo. David Mulovhedzi would have indeed been proud of the legacy of excellence he left with SGC.