San Francisco Chronicle
March 25, 2010
In the photo from 2008, a smiling Shimmy Jiyane is holding a Grammy Award as he stands to the right of Nelson Mandela. To Mandela’s left is a beaming Sipokazi Luzipo, who’s grasping Mandela’s hand. Surrounding them are other ecstatic members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, who made a pilgrimage to Mandela’s South African home after picking up their second big Grammy in Los Angeles.
The choir and Mandela, born generations apart, are inextricably linked – symbols of South Africa’s transformation into a post-apartheid society. At 91, Mandela is the country’s elder statesman, while the Soweto Gospel Choir is only 8 years old, made up of young professionals whose songs of resilience and redemption have stirred audiences at home and around the world.
“Overnight sensation” would be a mischaracterization of the choir, but its quick rise in music circles – performing at events with the likes of U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Celine Dion – has given its members a sense that they were meant to achieve big things. As part of its latest worldwide tour, the Soweto Gospel Choir performs at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on Saturday.
“We know we’re destined,” says choir singer and guitarist Kevin Williams, 29, in a phone interview. “Our destiny as individuals and as a choir has pulled us to the success we have right now.”
“Right now” includes contributing to film and video scores (Disney/Pixar’s “Wall-E” features their voices on a song), releasing acclaimed CDs (their latest, “Grace,” was deemed “exuberant” and “inspired” by Billboard magazine), and touring nine months of the year (with some months, performing every other night after traveling the night before) – a schedule that leaves little time for respite.
Williams and the group’s other members prefer it this way. Their work, they say, is a form of musical healing and a way to spotlight South Africa’s many cultures. The choir sings in six of the country’s 11 official languages (including English, Zulu and Xhosa), and wears traditional South African clothing that incorporates rainbow-colored beadwork, faces, triangles, squares, wraps and hats. Their songs take South African gospel to another level, with clapping, drumming, dancing, shouting and call-and-response harmonies that practically require the audience to respond.
Another key to the choir’s success: bringing a new intensity to songs that are already familiar to international audiences, such as “Amazing Grace,” the spiritual “Ride on Moses,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The choir’s version of “Ave Maria” is still and operatic before ending in a gospel whirlwind – an example of a tune whose original version is, in Williams’ words, “broken down” and then reworked with multiple harmonies.
Though many of the choir’s members are religious, and were recruited from Soweto’s church choirs, Williams says the group’s songs carry a universal message that essentially says, “You can overcome.”
“Whether (the song) is religious or whether it’s nonreligious, our goal is to get through to the individuals (in attendance), to their soul, to communicate the best way possible,” says Williams, whose group’s Oakland appearance was arranged by the California Institute of Integral Studies. “People might come tired to the shows, or they might have family situations or other situations, and we tell them that there’s still hope despite the circumstances.”
The choir’s connection to Soweto is a testament to this hope. Under South Africa’s apartheid system, Soweto became a poor area for blacks on the outskirts of Johannesburg. (“Soweto” is a shortened version of “South West Townships.”) Resistance to apartheid was centered in Soweto, scene of a 1976 uprising (which helped crystallize worldwide opposition to apartheid) where armed police killed children protesting policies that forced students to learn Afrikaans, a language originated by white Europeans. Among the languages now employed by the Soweto Gospel Choir: Afrikaans.
In the group’s music is reconciliation with South Africa’s brutal past, which is why the choir’s 2008 visit to Mandela’s home was so profound. After apartheid ended in 1994, Soweto became an official part of Johannesburg, experienced an economic upturn, and is now a major tourist attraction for visitors to South Africa. The Soweto Gospel Choir is one of many music groups to emanate from Soweto. Its success – stamped with two Grammys for “Best Traditional Music Album,” and sold-out concerts from China to the Middle East – has humbled choir members.
“There are so many highlights, it’s hard to pick one,” says Williams, who joined the choir in 2006. “There are days when you reminisce and say, ‘I performed with that person’ or ‘I’ve shaken hands with that person.’ I would say it’s overwhelming.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir: 8 p.m. Sat. Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. $25-$65. (800) 745-3000. ticketmaster.com.