March 8, 2012
By: Neil Armstrong
Vusimuzi Shabalala is the musical director, tenor and keyboardist of the Soweto Gospel Choir and although he is not related to Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he says the Shabalalas in South Africa are known as musicians and singers.
He is one of five brothers who sing and after finishing his matric — a National Senior Certificate — studied music for two years at Fuba Music School. Shabalala was also the musical director of a choir, Mecsa Sounds of Praise, and after two years auditioned for the Soweto Gospel Choir and was accepted.
“I was part of the Soweto Gospel Choir like that because they were looking for a pianist and I was the first and I could sing because now when you get into the choir you have to be able to do at least two things – sing or dance – so I was able to do at least three of them,” said Shabalala who started with the choir in 2003.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in November 2002. In December 2002, their first album Voices of Heaven was recorded and went on to reach the number one spot on Billboard’s World Music Chart within three weeks of its release in the United States.
Shabalala started out playing the organ at church and although he studied music and the piano, and even formed a gospel group, he initially wanted to become a sound engineer. Growing up in a Christian family with a father who was strict about music in Natal, Shabalala decided he wanted to study engineering because he needed money and it was a lucrative field.
Things didn’t go the way he planned however and Shabalala ended up studying music, thinking that when he was done he would pursue engineering. At age 33, music is his mission.
“I like the rawness of the choir, the being different of the choir among all the South African groups that are there singing almost the same kind of music,” he said. Shabalala was attracted to the choir because he said it showed the real South Africa, ‘you to churches in South Africa and you find this kind of music, anywhere in South Africa, on the streets, that is why we sing all kinds of music that you find in South Africa.’
The choir has performed for people such as former US President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, South African icons Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and shared the same stage with many international singers.
‘Overwhelming’ is how Shabalala describes his feelings when the choir performed for former South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “I got to meet him, I shook his hand. When I was shaking his hand, I felt something moving in my body, I was in tears, I just felt like crying because he is a great man. Whatever you see today in South Africa, the way South Africa is today, you want to cry, tears come, thinking about what he went through – not alone, yes – but as a hero who fought for our country,” he said about Mandela.
Archbishop Tutu is the patron of the choir – “He’s like a father to us. He’s just one funny person. I like his laughs but he’s a very great man too. It’s just a feeling that you can’t explain to meet such great people,” said Shabalala.
On February 11, 2007, the choir received a Grammy Award for their second CD ‘Blessed’ in the category ‘Best Traditional World Music’.
In February 2008, the choir received its 2nd Grammy Award for the 3rd album, ‘African Spirit’ in the Best ‘Traditional World Music’ category.
“We’re just lucky enough as a choir to win Grammys,” said Shabalala who was surprised that neither Miriam Makeba nor Hugh Masekela, given their body of work, won such awards.
The Soweto Gospel Choir performed at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on February 24 and 25 and wowed the audience with their music, energy and step dancing. The choir repertoire includes African traditional and gospel music but also contemporary songs such as Bridge Over Troubled Water’, and Sarah McLachlan’s Arms of An Angel with African as Bridge Over Troubled Water , and Sarah McLachlan’s Arms of An Angel with African lyrics.
“We’ve called our album Grace because God has been good to us, we are grateful and he had grace. All these years he has been so merciful to us and he has done a lot for us so we’re just appreciating God.”
In December 2010, the choir received its 4th Grammy nomination in the Best Traditional World Music category for Grace.
The song Down to Earth from the blockbuster Wall-E movie, their collaboration with Peter Gabriel, won a Grammy in the Best Movie Song category.
What’s next for the choir? Shabalala wants to see the choir featured in a movie, perhaps a movie about Nelson Mandela or US President Barack Obama.
The choir founded its own AIDS orphans foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, to assist organisations that receive little or no funding. To date, the choir has collected over R4million for their foundation.
“It’s got all these types of games that kids can play,” said Shabalala who said the choir has performed for the children and in return the children have performed for the choir.
In South Africa, the choir also performs for a variety of charitable organisations.