Ensemble serves up delicious harmonies, infectious energies
By Roger Levesque
April 10, 2012
So it was when the 20-plus voices of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir made their third Edmonton visit Monday, one of the last stops on a 40plusdate North American tour.
Who else could balance a program theme like African Grace with such a strong will to party down? And the crowd of some 1,200 was ready to be converted.
Just to make sure they had everyone’s attention, the choir took to the stage singing in the dark, and the opening number gradually took shape as several different parts eventually came together as one.
Then the set really took off, delving into Zulu praise songs, occasional pop numbers like Bob Marley’s One Love, African-American gospel tunes, even wedding songs.
You don’t often find such a range from one vocal group but the Grammy-winning SGC is a study in contrasts given their varied material, the balance of gritty, soulful arrangements and more modest expressions of beauty, the sacred and secular, the a cappella and bandbacked material.
Under their spell, Bridge Over Troubled Water takes off from its stately anthemic role in American pop balladry to become more of a street celebration, and a tidy tribute to the American songwriter (Paul Simon) who did much to put Soweto musicians on the map. You might find more stately sounds in the traditional Zulu hymns instead, complete with a display of call-response patterns that allowed your ears to compare the high and low swells of the singers.
Of the 26 members on stage, five filled out guitars and keyboards, two more played djembe drums and a few doubled as dancers. And it is a very ensemble affair. After a brief introduction at the start, few of the solo singers were ever introduced for their features, though they did find time for a bit of good-natured ribbing here and there.
Following changes to another set of colourful costumes they were briefly back in the dark again to start the second set, with 16 singers and the band pulling out a delicious slice of mbaqanga township jive, highlighted by the delightful hipswinging moves of the dancers up front.
The next medley started with a more traditional Zulu number, offering some magnificent pools of harmony competing at a frenzied pace. Moments later they drifted into sweet swells of a softer, lusher variety with a rendition of Many Rivers To Cross, finally reinventing another American spiritual, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, in a style that gave vent to their own folk grooves.
After a male-female duo provided the most nuanced English language ballad of the night, there was still room for high-energy Zulu jive, buoyed by spiralling high-pitched guitars.
Then came one last invitation for the audience to stand and dance for a pan-African classic from the songbook of the late, great Miriam Makeba, Pata Pata. But it couldn’t end there.
“You want more?” the MC inquired, and when the audience bellowed back in the affirmative the SGC closed with a riotous, goosebump-inducing take of Oh Happy Day.
Amen to that.