By Samantha Schuyler
January 30, 2014
Before the Soweto Gospel Choir performed on “The Today Show,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” or even got to Carnegie Hall, it performed in Gainesville.
The 46-member musical group from South Africa considers Gainesville its North American home, said founding member Sipokazi Nxumalo. And that was before it received 6 million views of its “Amazing Grace” cover on YouTube.
The choir will kick off its fifth North American tour with a performance at the Phillips Center on Tuesday.
Formed in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has become known around the world for its rousing performances of traditional African gospel music. “It’s songs that were taught to us by our mother’s mothers,” Nxumalo said.
The group sings in six of the 11 South African official languages as well as in English, covering songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel.”
Nxumalo said that the group is looking forward to starting its tour in Gainesville. She said the city always brings an amazing audience.
“We know it will be one of the best concerts of the tour,” she said. “Gainesville is like family to us.”
The new tour celebrates the group’s 10 years together as well as the release Tuesday of its fifth album, “Divine Decade,” which includes collaborations with such artists as U2 and Robert Plant.
“I think of it like when you’re married,” Nxumalo said. “When you get to 10 years you think, ‘Honey, we’ve made it.’”
Nxumalo said the performances are in memory of Nelson Mandela and will include Gumboot dancing, a percussive style created by South African miners as they worked.
Michael Blachly, director of University of Florida Performing Arts, said that UF has maintained a great relationship with the choir since it started performing in North America.
The ensemble made its first performance in the U.S. at the Phillips Center in 2005. And in 2008, when the choir was in Gainesville for two performances the week of Thanksgiving, Blachly treated the group to a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner.
Nxumalo said the group hopes to experience an American-style dinner in Gainesville again. And Blachly said he and his wife are planning one. He said the menu is tentative, but he’s thinking about barbecue.
Blachly said it’s important for Gainesville to forge relationships with international groups like the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“It’s important in being a university town in realizing the borders of the world are getting closer and closer,” he said.
And Nxumalo said the group wants to bring joy to the North American audiences.
“When people come to the show, we know they come with different things in their hearts,” she said. “Some need upliftment, so we definitely hope that … through the music they’ll be inspired.
“And we are just ready to give them a beautiful evening.”