By Larry Truong
February 2, 2012
Only one gospel choir in the world has performed with Bono, Aretha Franklin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Josh Groban, Celine Dion and John Legend.
It’s an ensemble that has been featured on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
And that choir — which made its U.S. debut in Gainesville in 2003 and calls the University of Florida its American home — is the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa.
On Friday, the three-time Grammy Award winners return for the fifth time to Gainesville, where they will perform the new production, “African Grace,” at the Phillips Center.
“We’ve got a very special relationship with Gainesville,” said Sipokazi Nxumalo, a 28-year-old alto singer and narrator for the choir. “The choir is very excited to come back.”
Performing tribal, traditional and popular African and Western gospel, the choir combines singing, dancing and storytelling with colorful costumes and a four-piece band.
“I assure you it’s going to be great,” Nxumalo said. “I cry every time we rehearse. It will be the best the Soweto Choir has ever offered.”
Gainesville residents can expect a two-hour performance with about 80 percent being a capella singing. The audience can also look forward to songs such as “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Arms of An Angel,” she says.
“‘African Grace’ reflects where the choir is and where it came from,” she said. “This time we are thanking God because we see his grace in the choir.”
Consisting of 28 singers while on tour, the choir’s members are all from Soweto, a lower-class urban area in Johannesburg, or neighboring areas.
Nxumalo, who was a 19-year-old living with her mom, a single parent, became a founding member of the choir when she was asked to try out after auditioning for “Popstar,” a singing competition similar to “American Idol.”
“I didn’t think my gift would take me this far and that the choir would be so amazing,” she says.
But Michael Blachly said he knew the Soweto choir was something amazing the first time he heard about it. As the director of UF Performing Arts, he was responsible for organizing the choir’s American debut.
“I read a review on them from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland,” Blachly says. “And it was everything you could hope to hear about an artist: energy, harmony and uplifting.”
Once he heard the choir for the first time, he said it was their vocal power that stood out.
“They sing in six of the 11 official languages of South Africa,” he says. “The harmony and excitement that they bring to the stage, I promise you will not be disappointed.”