By: Victoria Ahearn
The Canadian Press
February 22, 2012
TORONTO – Soweto Gospel Choir member Bongani Ncube gives a warning before rhyming off some of the illustrious recording artists the renowned South African group has worked with over the years.
“If I start counting, I won’t finish,” he said with a laugh in a phone interview ahead of the choir’s stop at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts this Friday and Saturday.
Indeed, the choir has shared the stage with a seemingly endless list of music industry veterans in its 10-year history, landing two Grammy Awards as well as Emmy and Oscar nominations along the way.
Their collaborators have included U2’s Bono, Wyclef Jean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Eurythmics, Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.
“Some occasions, like in the case of Peter Gabriel, it’s a very emotional thing,” Ncube, 32, said from a tour stop in Oberlin, Ohio.
“Most of his songs that speak about South Africa are emotional ones and then you’ll find some of the choir members crying yet enjoying the songs.”
The ensemble also feels a special bond with Bono because of his Africa-related activism, said Ncube, a bass guitarist and tenor who hails from Soweto.
“We are patrons of the same sentiment, I would say,” said Ncube, noting the choir has its own AIDS orphans foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which collects donations after shows.
Celine Dion, who worked with the choir on her “Taking Chances” tour in South Africa, has been known to give the group gifts.
“The last time she gave us some little presents — neck chains, those little things, key holders — because she is a very tight friend to the choir,” said Ncube, noting the key holders had the Maple Leaf on them.
Though Dion’s music is more mellow than that of the high-energy South African singers and dancers, she adjusted her choreography to keep up, said Ncube.
“I’d say we did invoke some energy, you know what I’m saying? Like, ‘Come on, shake it, sister, shake what your mama gave you,'” he said, laughing.
Formed in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has won Grammys for its albums “Blessed” and “African Spirit.” Meanwhile, its collaboration with Gabriel on the song “Down To Earth” from the film “Wall-E” earned an Oscar nomination and a spot performing at the Academy Awards.
Their latest show, “African Grace,” includes contemporary songs and takes the audience through South Africa’s culture as the performers wear vibrant outfits, sing in different languages and perform various tribal dances.
The choir is down a member these days because one of the dancers sprained his ankle during a performance.
“That’s how much energy you have to put into the show,” said Ncube. “So now we have 23, but a good 23.”
The group usually tours the world for about nine months every year, performing for sell-out crowds that have included heads of state and countless celebrities.
Choir members range in age from 25 to 40 and some come from poverty-stricken communities or rural areas, said Ncube.
Ncube has been with the choir for six years. He auditioned in Johannesburg, having caught the music bug from his church, “where music was the order of the day.”
“In an African church, you cannot separate rhythm, movement and dance — you just cannot separate that from God,” he said.
“God is a package that comes with all those things — you have to dance — so that’s where I got my inspiration and my initiation in terms of music.”