By Frank Ruggiero
January 19, 2012
The Soweto Gospel Choir is not like most choirs.
Its members are not classically trained, and they don’t read music.
Yet they’ve performed with the likes of U2, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Josh Groban, while winning two Grammy awards and reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music Charts.
Now, the Soweto, South Africa-based choir is bringing its winning combination to Farthing Auditorium Saturday, Jan. 28, as part of Appalachian State University’s 2011-12 Performing Arts Series.
The Soweto Gospel Choir seamlessly melds traditional African music and movement with gospel and pop favorites.
“They’re not like most choirs, where they come and they sing,” executive producer, director and co-founder Beverly Bryer said in a phone interview from South Africa. “Everything has a movement, a natural movement they’ve grown up with. It’s a show, it’s a performance, and it’s just an incredible energy.”
That energy is also contagious.
“People say, ‘I don’t know African gospel, I don’t know the language,’” Bryer said. “They come out of the show and say it doesn’t matter. They just love the music, harmonies, the djembe. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or know the language. It’s the joy, the uplifting they get from the music.”
About 65 percent of the choir’s repertoire is traditional African music, Bryer said, but numbers can be deceiving. The group has an uncanny knack for adapting Western styles of music for a sound uniquely its own.
Bryer witnesses this frequently, but one particular instance comes to mind. The Soweto Gospel Choir was to perform with Bono of U2 fame for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebration.
“They were going to back him on ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ and they literally had not heard the song,” Bryer said. “They listened to it for 10 minutes, huddled together in a little group, and within 10 minutes they had worked out their own harmonies. And they did it. I don’t know how they do it.”
But she has an inkling of an idea. Certain African phrasing and words fit surprisingly well into Western music, Bryer said, calling it a natural progression.
“It floors me every time,” she said. “It just comes together so easily and so quickly that people hear it and think it’s ages and ages of training. Most of the time it isn’t, but it sounds just right.”
Other musical icons would agree. “Bono thought it was just outstanding,” Bryer added.
Bono’s not alone. Since its formation in November 2002, the choir has received praise and acclaim the world over, and its talent was recognized from the very get-go.
Beforehand, Bryer was working as a publicist and event coordinator in Australia, where she came in contact with numerous promoters. Upon her return to South Africa, a group of promoters – Andrew Key, David Vigo and the late Clifford Hocking – contacted her, requesting that she and musical director David Mulovhedzi form an African gospel choir to tour Australia.
“The gospel music … was popular,” Bryer said. “David asked if we could do that. My background is in rock and pop music, not this. We only had three months to do it.”
During that time, Bryer and Mulovhedzi held auditions and signed 32 performers within a month.
“We went into the studio to record an album (‘Voices from Heaven’), and in three months had a group together to tour Australia,” she said.
As their shows sold out, the album was reaching No. 1 on the Billboard World Music Charts.
“We didn’t even really think about it,” Bryer said. “We knew once we had our group and they did one show – everybody knew this is something special. There’s such a natural talent in South Africa.
What’s special is … this is a really natural singing. That’s one thing with the albums, you feel like you’re sitting in a concert, feeling the raw energy.”
It doesn’t go unnoticed. The group’s second and third albums, “Blessed” and “African Spirit,” respectively, both won a Grammy for “Best Traditional World Music.”
Bryer credits this to the choir’s indisputable talent and versatility.
“Being involved in more pop and rock music has been quite a good thing,” she said, “because we, as a choir, are a little bit different. They do very much African traditional and gospel, which is their roots, but I’ve been able to bring more knowledge of the pop side. “They’ll do a Bob Dylan song or Simon and Garfunkel, they’ll meld the westernized pop side with their own African interpretation or harmonies – they’re putting in their own unique energy.”
And there’s plenty of energy to go around. The choir features 50 members, with 24 of them comprising the touring show. “Of the traveling group, 90 percent of them we started (the choir) with,” Bryer said. “For them, it’s been very thrilling. No one expected it to be as big as it is. They’ve been with it from the beginning, they’ve married, they’ve had children, they’re all one big family.
They can do a show, and for an hour afterward, they’re still singing. It’s just a joy for them, and I think that comes through in the show.”