By Forrest Hartman
March 21, 2010
The Reno Gazette-Journal
Eight years ago, Sipokazi Nxumalo was a South African teen who knew she could sing, but she had no idea what was in store for her. Fast forward, and she is a globe-trotting member of the Soweto Gospel Choir, a group that has performed in some of the world’s best-known venues and with some of the biggest names in music.
“Most of us come from the churches,” she said of the 26 choir members who will be in Reno on Friday for a concert presented by Artown. “You grew up singing in Sunday school and sang in the church choir and knew you were talented but didn’t think that your talent would take you that far.”
Nxumalo now understands that life can take unexpected turns, as her talent literally has taken her around the world and into the same arenas as many music legends.
“I’d enter the school competitions, the musical competitions in school, and I’d win, but I didn’t think that my talent would take me as far as working with people like Diana Ross, Peter Gabriel, Bono from U2, Beyonce,” she said. “When I started realizing that I was working with the likes of such people, then I thought, ‘OK, there must be really something good in those vocals to be part of such a great choir.'”
When Soweto comes to Reno, it won’t be bringing Bono or Beyonce, but it will have the crisp South African harmonies that made it famous.
“Our sound is very different than most choirs,” Nxumalo said. “Most choirs have the three-part harmony. That would be the soprano, alto and the tenor. We’ve got a four-part harmony, which have our basses, and that’s our pride because when they sing they sound like lions roaring. People, they love the sound. It’s very rich.”
Nxumalo, who is both a soloist and the show’s narrator, said about 80 percent of the group’s songs are performed a cappella, meaning the focus is squarely on the singers.
“People love that because you get to hear the true harmony,” she said. “The beauty in the music is in the cleanliness of it, that you can hear the basses and the sopranos and the lead singers.”
Soweto, which has won two Grammy Awards for its performances of traditional world music, is best known for dynamic vocal performances, but Artown executive director Beth Macmillan, who was born in South Africa, said the group has more to it.
“They’re more than a choir,” she said. “They have dancers. I think it’s really a great translation of the African spirit.”
Nxumalo said that one of the group’s goals is to share what South Africa is about and to let people know that the country is in a great place now, despite its troubled political past. Audiences get a broad look at South African culture because the group performs songs in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages. One of those languages is English, but she said American audiences can enjoy even the songs where they can’t decipher the lyrics.
“I explain the segment and what some of the songs basically mean,” she said. “So, at least if you don’t understand the language, you understand what the songs are about.”
The choir is visiting Reno in the midst of a three-month tour that began Jan. 12, and Nxumalo said she’s been having a wonderful time.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “I personally, as an artist, love America because the people have a good ear for music, and the reception is always good. … Some of my favorite musicians are from America. I think the gospel scene in America is very tight, and, you know, when it comes to music, I don’t think you can beat the Americans.”
Soweto Gospel Choir has been making waves in music for eight years now, but Nxumalo said the group is still surprised by its success.
“We’ve only been together for a short time, and we’ve achieved what most artists long for in the industry,” she said. “I mean, when we won our first Grammy that was like, ‘Wow. Grammy. Soweto Gospel Choir. Unbelievable.’ Then the second one was like, ‘No. Come on. Are you guys serious?’ So, I think it’s the payoff for all the hard work. We work very hard, I must say.”