By Jeff Heinrich
The Montreal Gazette
July 4, 2013
Nelson Mandela may be on his deathbed, but the Soweto Gospel Choir has decided to go ahead and tour abroad, in an exclusive Canadian tour that includes back-to-back gigs in Montreal.
Two dozen members of the Grammy-winning ensemble will sing their hearts out Saturday at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and their thoughts will be with their beloved Madiba.
“Whatever he’s been through, we just appreciate him,” the choir’s musical director, Kevin Williams, said of the 94-year-old former president, for whom the choir has performed several times.
“Even if his time on earth is cut short now, he’s done quite a lot — not just for his people, but for his nation,” Williams said from Pietermaritzburg, his hometown in KwaZulu Natal.
“Mandela has had his health issues and is in hospital now, but what can we say? If he’s called to rest tomorrow, that will not change what we do.
“It will really hurt, but we will celebrate his death and the fact that this man has lived his life to the fullest,” said Williams, a tenor who’s also the choir’s keyboard player.
“He advanced the cause of freedom not only for us in South Africa but for all Africans. And if he didn’t fight for what we have now, the Soweto Gospel Choir simply would not exist.”
The ensemble was formed 10 years ago in the former apartheid-era “township” of Soweto (pop. over 1.3 million), outside the capital, Johannesburg.
At the time, Mandela was 85 and still active in domestic and world politics.
If he dies while they’re on their month-long, sold-out tour of Canada, it won’t be the first time the choir members will mourn for a dear one in song while travelling.
Indeed, it’s commonplace for the group, Williams said.
“Many times, we’ve been on stage and a guy will hear the bad news that his mother or father or sister passed away, and you can see it and hear it, how he and everyone else is affected by it.
“In Mandela’s case, he’s not only a strong leader of our nation, he’s also someone most of us think of as a father, as a grandfather. So we’ll definitely be affected by his passing.
“But it won’t stop us from doing what we’ve got to do.”
And that is: Raise the roof in song — in this case, Montreal’s Maison symphonique.
In matinee and evening performances Saturday, the wood-panelled home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal will resound with the choir’s trademark mix of musical genres.
They sing traditional gospel, spirituals, hymns, soul, reggae and pop, and got world exposure performing at the Oscars with John Legend in 2009 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in their native land.
They’ve collaborated with superstars like Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant, and won best traditional world-music Grammys for the albums Blessed (2006) and African Spirit (2007).
Their new disc, Divine Decade — featuring guest appearances by Plant, U2, HHP, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Zahara and The Soil — will be available for sale at the choir’s Montreal gigs.
On stage here, they’ll be 24 singers in all, with Williams on keyboards. Besides English, they perform in their South African mother tongues of Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho.
“We’re looking forward to coming to Canada,” he said. “Most of the times we’ve been, it’s always been cold, but this time we hope the weather will hold something different for us.
“One thing we know for sure is that we’re going to try to change people’s situation, not only through what we say but what we sing, as well.
“We’re not God, so we can’t change people’s lives, but people can come to our show expecting some kind of solution to what they’re going through.
“We’ll be motivation, inspirational, encouraging.”
And they’ll lead by example, he added. In South Africa, the choir has been prominent in raising funds to fight poverty and homelessness.
“Soweto Gospel Choir was a thought that became an idea that became a reality. We were a bunch of individuals who became friends who became a group.
“And today — boom! — we’ve become one of the world’s best choirs.”
It doesn’t matter how old you are, Williams said, noting that the choir members, most of whom live in Soweto, range in age from 25 to 45. “It starts with the heart:
“If you’re heartbeat is right, then the music will be all right.”
And for Madiba, the beat goes on.