By Kia Gregory
March 1, 2012
They have raised their stirring voices before Nelson Mandela, the Prince of Wales, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
They have performed with Diana Ross, Bono, and Celine Dion.
They have sung lush harmonies and danced to traditional rhythms at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Video of the Choir performing Nomalanga
And on a cold and rainy Wednesday afternoon, the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa performed in the muggy gymnasium of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road before 175 inmates.
The two-time Grammy-winning, mostly a cappella choir is on a North American tour called “African Grace.”
The Rev. Lin Crowe, a volunteer chaplain at the prison, has visited and worshiped in Soweto and, for years, has used the choir’s music in the prison’s weekly Bible studies.
When he learned that the group was scheduled to be in the Philadelphia area, he wrote its directors a two-page letter.
“I am writing to you with a most unusual request,” Crowe typed, in understatement.
The choir accepted his invitation. The 26-member troupe would give a brief pro bono performance for the inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System in Holmesburg.
“I hoped it would be a source of encouragement,” Crowe said on the day of the show. “A lot of these men really do intend to go a different way in their lives. And for them to have a group come visit them and come out of their busy lives – it’s inspiring and tremendously encouraging.”
For some choir members, who came together in 2002 and travel much of the year, music has been a powerful force.
They hail from a town-turned-ghetto known for its 100-year struggle against apartheid.
They see at Curran-Fromhold “young black American boys that need to be encouraged, that need to be uplifted,” said founding member Sipokazi Nxumalo, 29, who sings alto. “We feel like that is our work, that is our mission.”
They also feel a spiritual connection.
“We’ve got brothers, cousins, and sisters that are in that environment and in that situation” – having been thrown into prison during apartheid, Nxumalo said. “We know what it’s like to lose hope and have no one to turn to. We also know the power of music.”
Through the choir, Nxumalo, like many of the members, supports herself and her family, which includes her mother, three sisters, and a brother.
She could not afford to attend college and joined the choir when she was 19. The group has since founded an AIDS-orphans foundation in South Africa called Nkosi’sn Haven Vukani, which means “Arise, do something.” It gives the donations received at concerts to organizations that support “street kids with no blankets and no food.”
“When we are coming overseas,” Nxumalo said, “it’s not only for ourselves. It’s for the whole community.”
At Curran-Fromhold, the inmates sat in plastic chairs and wore standard-issue blue uniforms. Most were young black males awaiting trial, some for a few years.
After the 2:30 p.m. show, their day would continue as usual, with dinner at 4. By then, the choir would have departed for an evening performance at Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square with dancers and a four-piece band.
But for an hour, the inmates held seats that audiences around the world might envy.
In a wave of rich sound, theater, and lively dance, the choir broke down the cold concrete walls and the stone-faced guards.
They took the men on a journey, to a clapboard church in Soweto, across the Atlantic, to a thumping church in Philadelphia, to the center stage of a world-class theater.
The choir sang a series of songs, some in Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana, languages of South Africa, to ovations and whistles. The men screamed for more.
In a finale, the choir performed the spiritual “Oh Happy Day.”
The audience was again on its feet, swaying, clapping, singing, smiling.
“It reminds me of happier days,” said inmate Howard Ballard, 52, as the choir left the stage. “You could feel it in the music.”