July 7, 2013.
It was a particularly animated Saturday night prayer meeting. And it was easy to imagine that God himself was snapping his fingers.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the 24-member Soweto Gospel Choir absolutely killed in a joyous, explosive performance at the Maison symphonique de Montreal.
Performing a cross-section of traditional African spirituals, American gospel numbers and contemporary popular music from both its homeland and the United States, the 24-member ensemble – with instrumental accompaniment limited to the occasional djembe or keyboard – delivered what has to be one of the most inspired shows of this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival.
During the choir’s astonishing 85-minute performance, the level of energy never slid below the degree of choral inspiration or the intensity of the gospel fervour. These strong, harmonic voices, applied to a satisfyingly varied repertoire, are the stuff of chills.
And it all sounds comforting and familiar, rather than something you wait patiently to check off on your cultural experiences list. After all, those doo-wop harmonies that are part of any rock n’ roller’s DNA had to come from somewhere.
The songs in the choir’s South African mother tongues communicated their feelings in a way that made the words unnecessary to understand. And even when there was a linguistic barrier, it was hard to miss the playful sense of shtick as singers challenged and replaced each other at center stage in various combinations. The choreographed moments, with nimble dance steps being thrown into the mix, were also a great part of the fun.
The audience enthusiasm was kicked up just a tiny notch with the material that was more familiar – let’s say a soul version of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water or a dramatic interpretation of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross or Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, for example. Or maybe the well-known English-language popular gospel material like This Little Light of Mine or Amen reached out to someone. Perhaps it was the show-stopping tribute to their own Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, with a roof-raising Pata Pata..
As the singers danced their way off the stage during the closer, Oh Happy Day, the choir seemed to know it had triumphed. And its triumph was ours, as well.