Apologies for the length of this reflection—you’ve been warned 🙂 All pictures below were taken by me–and don’t necessarily correspond with actual text below.
Everything below is just my own opinion and thoughts and does not reflect the views of the Soweto Gospel Choir, its members or management. Thanks.
Last week, I had the absolute honour of spending time with the Soweto Gospel Choir who are currently on tour throughout the United States and Canada. Over the course of four straight days, several hundred kilometers of driving, sleepless nights and simply pure excitement; I got to be part of the Soweto Gospel Choir family—my African family!
Every time the Choir tours North America, I anxiously await to see the tour dates so that I can figure out the shows closest to me—last tour in 2010 began with simply one show but led to me flying randomly to two other cities in my quest to hear Prayer for South Africa live in person (and, trust me, hearing it in person sung by SK was jaw dropping and worth every dollar spent on flights and hotels!).
So, this time around, last fall when the dates were announced, I was completely stoked that Toronto was getting two shows right in the heart of downtown (nothing against Casino Rama!). I knew I would be going to those two shows for sure; and as February drew nearer I realized I could really make an adventure out of it and decided to go to the Kingston (2.5 hour drive away) and North Tonawanda (aka Buffalo, right across the border) shows, too.
As the dates of this Grand Adventure drew closer, I was getting excited to see my African family again. I’m lucky enough that I’ve had much support for my efforts with this fansite, Soweto Gospel Fans, from the higher ups, and quickly was able to secure tickets for all the shows.
Over the years, I’ve also been blessed enough to have gotten to know many members of the Choir (thank you facebook); and while not trying to be presumptuous, I do consider many of them friends and feel quite close to a few of ‘em who I talk to on a regular basis. But, knowing someone via facebook doesn’t necessarily equate to really knowing them; and I’m the type to always feel apprehensive and hesitant when “barging” into someone else’s life / space—especially when touring is very tiring and grueling. This tour has been going on for close to two months by now, and I did not want to be the person who comes in, unwelcomed and become bothersome. Maybe that’s my self-deprecating personality—but my excitement of wanting to spend quality time with the Choir was outweighed by this anxiety.
I know all this internal conflict wasn’t necessary—of all the times I’ve spent with the Choir, I have never felt anything but warmth and love. Many members go out of their way to make me feel welcomed, and I’ve had countless of long conversations and banter with several of them. This is not surprising at all—the individuals who make up the Soweto Gospel Choir are all wonderful people. To the average fan, the 24 members of the Choir are just that—a Choir, but to me; I see them as individuals who each all have their own stories, sacrifices and aspirations.
I know that each member of this choir gives it their all day in and day out on tour—giving and sharing their amazing talents with audiences throughout the world. This isn’t always easy—the touring life is a tough one; it’s not a glamorous life nor a life that is right for everyone. The majority of all members are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are separated from these loved ones for lengthy periods of time. On the flip side, I am sure they realize how much joy and inspiration they bring to their audiences. How their music gives people hope and faith. I am not personally a deeply religious person, but there is simply nothing comparable to the Soweto Gospel Choir ministering via their musical gifts.
I am one of these people that they have touched—way back when at my first concert in Toronto where I left the show in complete awe and amazement at how a Choir could simply move you. At this first concert, I had no idea who any of the members were—I didn’t even have the nerves to approach the few members in the lobby following the show. Since that first show, my love for SGC has only grown. It’s not simply because the music they sing is awe-inspiring—because really, it is—but I think it’s because I’ve gotten to know several members well and truly appreciate all that they give and do to make SGC happen. Without them, the Choir just wouldn’t be the same.
The first time I met any Choir members in person was right before Christmas 2008, when the Choir had shows at Massey Hall in downtown Toronto. By the time the concert had rolled around, I was friends (more like acquaintances) with several of the ladies via facebook and I had messaged a few of them ahead of time saying I was looking forward to finally meeting in person. I can still remember this day clearly, but following the show I remember going out into the lobby and looking around to see which members were greeting fans. I didn’t see any of the ladies I had contacted ahead of time out front, so my heart dropped slightly; thinking my opportunity to meet in person was most likely not going to happen.
I was about to leave when I noticed Maserame taking photos with fans on the steps in the lobby and thought, I should say ‘hi’ and get a picture with Rame, so I waited my turn and approached her. I was a bit flustered and most likely acted like a complete dolt, but I told her what a big fan I was, asked for a photo, and said that I wished some of the others were out front so I could finally say ‘hi’ in person. I think it clicked in Rame’s head who I was, as she said “You’re Elaine, from facebook?” and I was floored she knew who I was! She had accepted my friend request weeks before, but I had not really communicated with her, so I was utterly surprised that she knew who I was.
She asked me who I was looking to see, and I told her Jabu and Thembisa. She then took me towards the door which led backstage and I ran into Thembisa and Jeho. I quickly asked for a photo with the two of them (Jeho was heading back in to change, whereas Thembisa looked like she was looking for someone) and they happily complied. I was hoping to speak with Thembisa a bit more, as she was one of the members I chatted with online more frequently, but she ducked away quickly and I left it at that.
Completely excited, I was about to head back to the lobby and leave when out popped Jabu from the connecting door. She was all smiles and we chatted—it was really amazing to have finally met and I told her how much I enjoyed the show and loved seeing her rocking out on percussion.
Jabu, to my surprise, then took me backstage where she introduced me to some of the other ladies in the Choir. I remember standing in the dressing room with SK and Sibongile, and gushed to them how much I admired them and that their rendition of I’ll Remember You during the show was so powerful and moving. They were all so humble when receiving my compliments, and thanked me for coming out to the show. I wished them all the best for the rest of the tour, and quickly ducked out of the dressing room and headed back towards the door where I came through.
Just as I was about to leave the backstage area, Thembisa came back in, moving quickly like a whirlwind. She stopped when she saw me again, and said she was happy that I hadn’t left yet. I was a bit confused as to what she meant, but then figured out that she hadn’t realized it was me when I had taken that photo with her and Jeho earlier. We ended up chatting candidly for a few minutes, and I was thoroughly impressed at how personable and kind Thembi was. My father was with me (acting as my unofficial photographer!), and to this day, she still asks me how my father is every time I see her.
I left that concert that night in 2008 completely impressed and in awe of the Soweto Gospel Choir—I knew going into the show I was already a huge fan. I’ve been to concerts prior, and could sing (albeit, very horribly, I assure you!) along with all of their songs, and can list off all the Choir members like the back of my hand. But meeting some of them in person made me realize how friendly and affable they really were (not that I was expecting them to be horrible people in person, but they were above and beyond friendly—even to a ‘lil nobody like me!).
A few weeks after that concert, I launched Soweto Gospel Fans (the first version of the site was vastly different to what you see now) and I told myself I would do anything in my power to promote and spread the word about the Choir. I was going to go to bat for them, and I was more than happy to do so.
In 2010, right in the midst of the craziness of the Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics (where I was working), the Choir toured the Pacific Northwest and I was able to see them all again in Bellingham (WA), Kelowna (BC) and Edmonton (AB)—in what I like to call my quest to see the full band show. Tons of fun memories from then, too, as I got to experience the “backstage” life a bit more.
So, fast forward to last week—on the eve of departing for Kingston to meet up with the Choir, I thought to myself: maybe four shows in four days is a bit much, they’re going to dread me come Sunday! I had been tweeting / chatting with several members of the Choir constantly in the weeks leading up to the Kingston show—sharing my excitement to see them again, and being “reunited” since the last tour in 2010. Maybe I was making seeing them again a too-big-of-a-deal; and that I should put things in the right perspective—you’re just a fan, Elaine—nothing more, nothing less. From their perspective, I’m just that—a fan—I may be a bit hardcore in my fandom, so I told myself not to expect too much. They’re on a long tour, will be busy/tired/have other things in mind than to entertain me.
But you know what? I had nothing to be worried about. Arriving in Kingston and immediately sitting down with Jabu and Jeho in their hotel room; having a long and candid conversation about everything and anything—those two exemplified how the rest of the weekend was going to go: great little moments here and there.
And there were many great moments. I got to spend a ton of time with the Choir and, essentially, be on tour with them for four days. I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way and not impose myself where I wasn’t wanted—I could pick up which members were kosher with me hanging around with them, and others who I knew not to bug too much. Everyone treated me so well; and a big thank you to each and every one of ‘em – crew included!
Seeing this current show for the first time was well worth the wait. I’ve heard so much about it from fans that have seen it (or a show close to it) in Europe and Australia last year—it had me chomping at the bit to finally have my turn.
From the moment the house lights went down at the first show in Kingston, with the first words of Jesu Ngowethu, I knew I was in for a great show (I’m humming that song as I type this!). And, it didn’t disappoint at all.
Some of my favourite highlights (in no particular order) included:
- Hearing Libala Kuye for the first time—the fun “showmanship” between the guys and gals!
- SK and Jeff leaving everyone in awe with their bone-chilling rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water. I told both of them that there’s just something about the two of them singing together that creates magic—it was the same for I’ll Remember You a few years back.
- The cheers and laughter every time Vusi Sr. comes out and sings the low parts—he’s a crowd favourite!
- The infectious way Zaza sings the lead for Calvary—she just draws you in!
- Shimmy and the way he has the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand throughout the show!
- Melusi and the rest of the guys getting the crowd in a frenzy with their crazy Zulu high kicks in Nomalanga.
- Watching Lungi ham it up and dancing during Eli. Too much fun!
- Another new favourite song was Ziphinkomo (aka the cow…eer…the lobolo song :p)—you can just see how much fun the Choir is having on stage during this song! The lyrics are catchy, and the way Rebecca, Portia and Jeff sing the leads is pure joy.
- The dancing, as per usual, was amazing and on point. Thembi, Jeho and Mary held it down for the girls—a SGC show just isn’t the same without seeing them do their thang! Linda was absent because he broke a bone in his foot, but you could barely notice any difference—all of the guys are so talented.
- Seeing Jabu rock out on the djembes during Njalo.
- Speaking of djembes, Sipho and Original were tireless in their drumming—song in and song out, they kept the rhythm going!
- Portia and her ululating/laughter/calls on various songs—I can pick it out as it’s so distinctive!
- The crowd participation during Pata Pata—such a fun song to begin with, and the Choir gets you right in on the action.
- Seeing Bongani back on stage after having a freak accident the week before and seeing him all smiles and back in his element. The guy couldn’t be happier (and relieved!)!
- Shout out to the band with Ten Ten, Kevin, Mandla and Honey!
- My new favourite encore song…Ipi Ntombi. I had that song stuck in my head for days and days—such a fun song with great choreography! Hiyaaaaa hiyyaaaa….yyummmmm.
- And, lastly, Arms of an Angel was everything everyone made it out to be. I’ve heard so much of this song and was really curious to see how the Choir interpreted this well-known Sarah Mclachlan song. When Zaza and Shimmy start, you’re thinking…hhhmmmm. And then the African lyrics (by Mulalo, I’ve heard!) start and Jeff and Lungi join and by the time the full Choir and band kicks in, you’re completely soaring with them. So uplifting! Standing O indeed!
I could go on, and on…I saw the show four times in four days, and each time I noticed something different. I had two friends and my sister with me at different shows, and all of them had never seen the Choir perform before—I wouldn’t classify any of them as your typical gospel/world music fan. But, nonetheless, the shows had them all on their feet and clapping. It didn’t matter—they were caught up in it and each of them left saying it was one of the best concerts they ever been to.
(Side bar, but, thank you to the Choir for being so nice to my sister! I sort of threw her into the situation and told her she must come with me to the show—I knew she would be the toughest to “win over” as she hears me blast the music at home all the time and constantly puts up with me yammering on about the Choir—but, she loved the show and I am sure she will be back next time you guys are in Toronto!)
All in all, I had a wonderful time with the Choir during this Great Adventure. I ended up staying a bit longer than I had planned after the Buffalo show; but was thankful that Jabu and Jeho were ok with me crashing with ‘em for the night before my early morning drive back to Toronto and reality that was work.
A big thank you to every one of the Choir for letting me be a part of your world for that short period of time. You cannot fathom how much I appreciate the hospitality and kindness. A special shout out to the ladies—you know who you are—who spent extra time with me, let me pick their brains some and went above and beyond in making me feel at home. My deepest gratitude to you.
I will cherish the moments I spent with the Choir and now completely feel refreshed and rejuvenated as a SGC fan. This Choir has accomplished so much over the 10 years of its existence—they have won countless of awards, performed with the greatest names in the entertainment industry, do amazing charity work and are true global ambassadors for their country.
Yet, through it all, the members of the Choir remain grounded, humble, thankful and hardworking. It doesn’t go to their heads. No one works as hard as these guys do to bring their talents all over the world.
I am grateful and proud to be, in some small way, a part of the Soweto Gospel Choir family. It is a family that works and plays hard, yet they do it with laughter, humour, smiles and a warmth and love that simply radiates out from them.
Are you a Soweto Gospel Choir fan?
I surely am.
ONE LOVE! 🙂