By Joanna Bowen
Friday, 03 June 2011
African Grace is a celebration of the supreme joy of music, life, and love, and the beauty of human voices, movement and collaboration. The energy of the Soweto Gospel Choir is truly amazing, their exuberance infectious. For these incredibly talented South Africans, the word “grace” refers to the blessings bestowed by God on his people, and an aesthetic beauty of form, and so perfectly embodies the spirit of the choir.
Distinctly different from the choral singing that many of us are used to (especially in religious settings), this choir loves to move, and dancing seems as much a part of their singing as breathing. Every song incorporates African dancing – chaotic, frenetic movements, moving with and making the beats. The dancers’ grins show both their enjoyment of their art and the sense of fun that flows throughout the choir. Among their astounding list of talents, the choir has the gift of communication, of performing to, to just for their audience. Every note, every gesture and movement is an act of sharing joy, laughter and wonderment.
Superb voices are to be expected from a choir of such renown, and we are not disappointed. Every member of the choir has one or many solo moments in which to display their vocals, supported by the rest. As much as we love the solo voices, we long for more moments of full-blown oneness, all voices raised together to an apex. We receive such a moment at the end of the show, when a choir leader urges the whole audience to stand and sing and dance along. Finally the choir really lets loose and the energy of the building skyrockets.
I am loath to single out individuals for mention, because I cannot do it for the nearly 40 members of the choir, and to omit any one of them would not feel right. There were indeed some stand out voices and performers, but much of the choir’s fantastic style is based on the movement of every member in and out of the choral lines, back and forth for dancing moments, while many members switched from singing to dancing to percussion or keyboards. The whirlpool of talent leaves you gobsmacked.
The choir’s individualism is the core for its success. Every member moves in their own way, without adherence to conformity of gesture and movement, even though the movements are initially the same. This means that everywhere you look, someone is interpreting the lyrics with a different nuance, moving with greater grace, or a different level of energy, expressing themselves while constructing a magnificent whole.
Bright, beautiful costumes create a riot of colours against the black stage backdrop, and there is always something to watch. Even so, I find myself sitting back with my eyes closed, trying to absorb as much as my ears can manage. Some songs are accompanied by a small band, however the volume of this detracted from the voices – voices which need no accompaniment. The true highlights of the show are the a capella pieces, which lie at the heart of gospel singing. The balance of the voices creates sounds so rich and full you could dive into them and swim for miles.
The audience is notably of an older generation and my partner and I find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of aging, middle-class couples. Not being of religious persuasion ourselves detracts nothing from our enjoyment of the choir’s Christian songs – and not just because we only speak one of the five languages they sing in. The power of their music is in their worship of the blessings in their lives, of the beauty of the world, and of joy in living. The music’s spirit flies far beyond the varying specifics of the choir’s and their audiences’ religious persuasions, touching all listeners’ hearts with its freedom and joy.
And like spirit of their music, the loving hearts of the members also go far beyond themselves. From the proceeds and donations the choir receives it supports two aide facilities which care for the many orphaned children in the region known as Soweto, the South Western Townships of sprawling Black suburbs outside Johannesburg. They are supported by Mission Australia in this tour, so we are often reminded that there is more to this wonderful phenomenon than entertainment. Yet for their audience, in the moments when they raise their voices and move together, nothing else exists but joy.