Jan 17, 2012
By Roberta Penn
What: The Soweto Gospel Choir, presented by the Wilmington Concert Association
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24
Where: Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNCW
Details: 962-3500 or www.WilmingtonConcert.com
Soweto is an acronym for Southwestern Townships, a vast containment community originally created to keep the indigenous people of South Africa segregated from the country’s white colonizers. Since the end of apartheid, however, Soweto has become a source for talent, ideas, leadership and inspiration.
One illustration of the township’s flowering is the Soweto Gospel Choir, a vocal and dance company that performs Tuesday at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium.
Founded in 2002, the choir began as an expression of the many forms the Christian church takes in South Africa. From Anglican to fundamentalist, the faiths have been imbued with tribal traditions from throughout the continent. Parts of African religions have also become germane to what Christianity is in the country.
The gospel music of South Africa includes another element not often seen in Christian churches, dance.
“Almost every song has dancing,” said Beverly Bryer executive producer and director of the choir, during a phone interview from Soweto. “Natural dance has always been part of African gospel. It’s not something we have added for commercial attraction.”
The choir’s repertory is also different from traditional Christian music. “African Grace,” the group’s sixth and most recent release, features songs of praise, some sung in different native tongues. But there are also gospelized covers of Little Feat’s “Voices on the Wind” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which are sung in English. The inclusion of inspirational pop songs reflects how the message of the group has broadened.
We take the history of what the country was, what it has been through and where it is today,” explained Sibongile Makgathesib, an original member of the choir. “It’s a message of love, forgiveness and peace.”
Since apartheid ended, South Africa has flourished in some areas while having to confront old problems that have intensified. Crime and unemployment continue to be issues. Makgathesib doesn’t deny these detractions to the emergence of the new South Africa.
“There is so much understanding in South Africa today, so much energy,” she said. “But change does not come overnight.”
Makgathesib was 19 when she joined the Soweto Gospel Choir. Like all the members of the group she had no professional training. Her schooling was in a church choir.
“My church was very proud of my singing. That’s where I learned to sing,” she said. “I was born with the talent but I never thought I would join a choir that would be this successful.”
And the Soweto choir has been very successful.
Just a year after the choir was formed it won the 2003 American Gospel Music Award for Best Choir. In 2007, a Grammy was awarded to the group for its second album, “Blessed,” in the Best Traditional World Music category. The following year the choir won the same Grammy for “African Spirit.” A third Grammy nomination came in 2008 in the category Best Contemporary World Music for “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre.” There was yet another Grammy nomination for “Grace,” and the choir won a Grammy last year for the song “Baba Yetu,” which the group contributed to Christopher Tin’s “Calling All Dawns.”
Tours have taken the Soweto Gospel Choir through most of Europe and North America and to parts of South America and Asia. It has performed for South African dignitaries and on the concert bills of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and gospel singers Bebe Winans and Kirk Franklin. It has recorded with Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Josh Groban.
Such success doesn’t come without commitment. The members of the Soweto Gospel Choir have been as dedicated to the group as the citizens of Soweto were to ending apartheid. From 32 original members, the group has grown to 50, with 32 members currently on tour. Nearly 90 percent of the original members remain with the choir.
These voices from Soweto have been featured in so many different settings and won so many awards because choir members have opened their ears to sounds from around the world while staying rooted in their origins. They have taught the world about its unique harmonies, as well as the openness that was necessary to transition peacefully from a colonized country to one that determines its own destiny – and the joy that comes with that victory.