By Parry Gettelman
April 7, 2010
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s concert at Bass Concert Hall on Sunday is the last on a tour that began in the Virgin Islands in January and has taken the South African group across the United States and through Canada as well. The schedule looks grueling, but in a phone conversation from a tour bus pulling out of Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, Bongani Ncube brushed aside any notion of road weariness.
“When we are on stage, we forget that we ever had a moment of being tired,” he said. “The energy levels always rise when we get on stage, because we do what we love most; we do what really energizes us as a choir and individually, and it’s easy then to use up all that energy and convert it into an explosive show.”
Since its formation in 2002, the choir has won countless rave reviews for its colorful and dynamic performances and has sold out venues from the Hong Kong Festival to Carnegie Hall. The gifted vocalists dance as well as sing, and the musicians do a little bit of everything. Ncube tried out for the group some four years ago on bass, having tagged along to an audition with a friend because they were headed to a gig together afterward. He now plays bass and sings in the tenor section, and dances, of course.
“We’re pretty much all-rounders,” Ncube said. “Everyone in South Africa starts by singing. I’d say we are a musical nation, we learn everything in rhythm, in movement. Even when learn how to walk, there is a song that our parents always sing for us. It’s rhythmic, so we learn to walk in rhythm, and rhythm is part of our second nature. It all has to do with growing up singing and, you know, we sing for every little thing. At parties, whether they have a sound system or not, we sing along.”
The choir’s unique vocal blend has brought opportunities to collaborate with a wide range of artists, among them Celine Dion, Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen and Peter Gabriel, with whom the group recorded the Grammy-winning song “Down to Earth” from the Wall-E soundtrack. The choir has two Grammys of its own in the Traditional World Music category. In addition, it has furthered the cross-pollination between the South African and American gospel scenes by working with Bebe Wynans and Kirk Franklin. Gospel music is a common foundation for everyone in the choir, Ncube said, and for many South Africans.
“Generally in South Africa, even in our schools, we sing gospel songs for our assemblies. Whenever we get together, it’s always been gospel. Most of the songs we do in our show are songs I grew up with, except for our international ones, and some other newly composed songs,” he said.
The choir’s current repetoire includes Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” a searing tribute to a martyr of the anti-apartheid movement, as well as songs sung in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
“Some songs are just easy to attach to the tongue, and people sing along even if they don’t understand the language and have never heard the song before,” Ncube said.
In addition to serving as musical ambassadors, the members of the choir help support charitable organizations and efforts, such as a South African orphange and, recently, Haitian disaster relief. Their endeavors on all fronts have brought them the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is their official patron — and one of their biggest fans.
“We had a song just dedicated to him, and when we met him, we would sing this song, and now every time we see him, he says ‘I want my song! I want my song!’ ” Ncube reported, laughing.
After its much-deserved break from touring, the choir will make one of its most momentous appearances to date in June, at the opening ceremony for Africa’s first-ever World Cup competition.
“We’re really proud to be part of such an event,” Ncube said. “We’ll do every good thing it takes to be part of it, because this is our history.”