By Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog.
In 2002, Sipokazi Nxumalo, a young woman living in South Africa, had recently graduated from high school with plans to attend university.
There was one problem: Sipokazi’s mother was a single parent and, although she had supported her thus far, she did not have the money to pay for university tuition. The young graduate heard that the new Soweto Gospel Choir was holding auditions. She decided to try out, determined that if accepted, she would use the earnings from singing to pay for university.
“The audition was nerve-wracking because there was so much talent,” Sipokazi told TBGB.
“We also heard that [the choir] was to go overseas. Most of us had not flown or even traveled abroad, so there was the anxiety of ‘Am I going to make it into this group…that might travel abroad?’”
Sipokazi was concerned because while she could sing, she couldn’t dance, and there were contestants who could do both. “But they balanced it, because in the production we’ve got professional dancers, we’ve got singers, we’ve got band members, we’ve got percussion.”
In the end, Sipokazi was one of the “lucky few” chosen to be a founding member of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Having put her university aspirations on hold, Sipokazi is not only a singer for the fifty-two member South African ensemble, she also serves as its narrator. The group has won an impressive array of awards in its ten years of existence, including two GRAMMY Awards. The choir has performed before world leaders and with a star-studded list of artists, including rock icons Robert Plant and Bono.
What is the magic of the Soweto Gospel Choir? Tradition, Sipokazi said.
She explained that the choir’s main repertory is comprised of “rooted music that goes way back. They are old traditional songs that were sung in our churches. Some of the songs were taught to our grandmothers’ mothers. There are also songs written in the Apartheid era, when we were going through the riots. We had no voice, but we’d write such beautiful music, run to the church where we felt safe [and sing]. At church, we felt ‘If God is on our side, nothing will go wrong.’”
A cappella vocal harmony is an important element of South African music. “In South Africa, we have diverse cultures of faith,” Sipokazi said. “We have eleven official languages. There’s a different language in each culture and a different sound in that language. Then we’ve got over 1,800 different churches. When you go to Soweto, the church scene is so big. Different faiths and different religions. So when we create our music, we try to put in that diversity. For example, we capture from the Xhosa culture, from the Zulu culture. We’ll take something from the Zionist Church, maybe the hum. Then we’ll go to the Baptist Church and take the beat. And that’s how we compile our music: from the diversity that is in our culture.”
Sipokazi herself comes from the Pentecostal tradition. “We’ve got Pentecostal songs. We try and cover all the borders of religion.”
Music is a big part of South African life, Sipokazi said. “When there’s mourning, we sing. When a baby’s born, we sing. When a baby grows up, you, as a parent, are singing to your child. At weddings, we sing. Funerals, we sing. We can’t even start our show without singing our own traditional songs and praying, because that keeps us going!”
She said the gospel music scene in South Africa is huge. “In the South African music industry, I think the greatest support would be for the gospel genre. It’s because the church is the one place we can run to and feel safe. We can run to the Lord and we have refuge. Faith is one of the things we pride ourselves on. We might not have silver and gold, but we’ve got the Lord.”
As a musical troupe with a global presence, the Soweto Gospel Choir now incorporates into its repertory elements from other countries. “You might find us singing a song that was done in America. We’ve got ‘Oh Happy Day,’ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ We not only try to showcase what’s in South Africa, but also show the people that we are listening to what’s happening in other countries as well. But in that situation, we put the Soweto Gospel Choir feel into the song. We sing it our way. We’ll take ‘Oh, Happy Day’ and put a little bit of Zulu in there, just splash in something that says we are the Soweto Gospel Choir.”
Sipokazi explained that the name of the choir’s current tour, African Grace, has a special meaning for the members. “We’re thanking God for His grace, the love and the favor he’s bestowed upon us. And it’s a beautiful production. About thirty percent of the show is new. We’ve got new songs. We’ve changed the dance piece. New costumes, new color and we’ve got a beautiful rendition of [Sarah McLachlan’s] ‘Arms of an Angel.’ Every night we are receiving a standing ovation. People are cheering us and are crying.”
But the Soweto Gospel Choir also sings and dances for a cause. Its charity, Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani, supports AIDS orphans organizations that receive little or no government funding in South Africa. “That’s really our pride and joy because we collect donations after each performance, and those donations go to those organizations. They’ve got no beds, no blankets, no food, no books. Every time we come back, the little children are smiling, happy, because they know the groceries are coming. For me, this is the greatest thing that the choir is doing. When we are traveling, it’s not only for our benefit and the benefit of our families, but it’s also for the benefit of the community at large.”
Is university still in Sipokazi’s future? “The schedule is so tight, you can’t find time off,” she admitted. “If I were to go back to school, it would have to be the short courses.”
But she added, “At the same time, I’m enjoying being in the choir. It’s amazing to be able to change people’s lives through music and, at the same time, to be able to support my mum and my brothers.” Amandla!