South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir brings traditional hymns and pop rock to Columbia
By Allison Pohle
March 15, 2012
Their buoyant melodies have uplifted souls and turned smiles the past 10 years. The Soweto Gospel Choir has performed with Bono, Peter Gabriel and Celine Dion, to name a few. It has also won two Grammy awards and raised more than a half million dollars for children affected by AIDS. Founded in 2002, the choir was created to celebrate the inspirational power of African Gospel music. The internationally acclaimed choir has been touring the United States for the past several months and will perform at Jesse Auditorium on Tuesday, March 20.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has been praised for changing lives of audience members, but singer Zanale Ngcamu has proof that the choir also changes the lives of its singers. A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, she auditioned when the choir was looking to replace one of the original members who left in 2005. On Ngcamu’s first world tour, she accompanied the group on a trip to Holland. Because Ngcamu was new, she didn’t know the members had assigned seats on the tour bus. She sat down in one of the first seats she saw, not knowing that she was sitting in someone’s assigned seat. That someone would eventually become her husband. “I stole his seat, and I later stole his heart,” Ngcamu says.
Now, Ngcamu and her husband, travel the world with the Soweto Gospel Choir, all the while experiencing different climates, meeting new people and spreading their jubilant songs. Vox asked Ngcamu about her experiences as one of 52 members of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
How would you describe the music you sing?
Most of our songs are traditional hymns and gospel. A lot of us grew up singing in churches, so we sing those traditional gospel hymns. The generations have changed from what’s traditional gospel style, so we try to adapt and bring all of the generations together. Also, we try and sing contemporary songs and things like “I Will Remember You.”
What do you like most about the music you sing?
I love singing gospel because I am a Christian. Music is an expression, whether you’re singing pop or love songs. For me, I love the gospel music because I’m able to preach about Jesus and tell people how I feel about him and my God and touch other lives and give people hope.
What kind of impact does your music have on people?
We’re going into the tenth year now, so we’ve been to Asia, Australia and all over. Sometimes we do go out into the audience and talk to people, and we hear stories. One time someone said, “My right hand wasn’t moving, and now I’m able to move it.” And some people say that it touched their life. Another said that they were an alcoholic, and hearing the music changed their life, so it really shows how we can touch lives.
You’re a solo singer for the group. How does singing solos compare to singing with the group?
In a solo you can go wild and be yourself. And even in the choir there are times where you can be yourself up front. But one thing about the choir is you learn how to adapt and flow and listen to other people and how to blend in.
How did it feel to be a part of the group when you won a Grammy?
We were also doing a tour then. It was a great feeling because it was such a great gratification. We felt appreciated, like people love us and like we were really doing something good.
What is the most memorable performance you’ve ever had?
It was with Celine Dion when she came to South Africa for her world tour and sang with the choir. When I grew up, I listened to her, and I never ever dreamt or thought I would sing or share the stage with her.
Do you get star struck when you meet celebrities?
Sometimes we can be a bit nervous, but when you meet people they’re so humble, and others are funny and do comedy. Sometimes we go to lunch or dinner, and that’s where we get the chance to really meet them and say hello.
The choir has raised more than $600,000 for Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani, which works on behalf of AIDS orphans and families affected by AIDS. Do you get to see firsthand the impact that the money raised has on families?
After the performance, maybe two or three members collect donations for the charity. So yes, when we go back home, we go to schools and organizations and buy them clothes and blankets, TVs or microwaves, food, everything we can.
Are there any ways for people to get involved with the charity?
If you go to the website, you can see the link to donate. I think that to be alive and to be well is a gift of God. So when you see their faces, how they shine and how it just takes a little faith, it is such a blessing to do something.
What’s the most rewarding part about being this group?
The rewarding part about being in the choir is that my life has been changed. I’m now a married woman. Our lives have been changed, and we touch lives every day. People in communities respect us in a really professional way.