February 21, 2014
Democrat & Chronicle
The gap between “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the songs exchanged in jail cells between black South Africans imprisoned under Apartheid is not as wide as might be imagined. The Soweto Gospel Choir makes those styles one.
“Over the decades, when we collaborate with American artists, we put the sound of Africa behind them,” says Keith Williams of the two-time Grammy-winning group, performing Saturday, Feb. 22, at Nazareth College’s Callahan Theatre. “We fill in the gaps with Africa.”
He defines that African sound as “the drums, the screaming, the shouting, the excitement, percussion, the dancers, high kicks, low kicks.”
And that curious clicking noise that’s a part of the six languages of South Africa. “It’s like whistling,” he says. “What you hear when you’re growing up is what you imitate.”
Williams offers a quick tutorial: “Take your tongue, loosen it, hold it to your palate and pull back, shape your mouth in the form of an ‘O.’ ”
Well, how about that … it works.
There are actually two Soweto Gospel Choirs touring the U.S., both made up of 25 to 28 musicians and dancers, but hardly monolithic.
“All sizes, shapes, characters, personas,” Williams says. He’s been with the group for 8½ years, as a singer, keyboardist and now musical director.
The Soweto Gospel Choir calls its fifth American tour “A Musical Celebration of its Rainbow Nation and the Life of Nelson Mandela.”
After a dozen years of making music, there is no confusion over the group’s sound. It is African. Yet it shifts continents with ease.
The group’s brand new album, Divine Decade, includes collaborations with U2 and Robert Plant. The choir writes its own songs, influenced by churches in the same ways that American gospel is driven by the fervor of the congregation. It covers traditional African songs, Jimmy Cliff reggae and newer compositions by South Africans such as Johnny Clegg. And it dips into the western pop catalogs for Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and The Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.”
But the root of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s music is, Williams says, “all good moments in a bad time.”
Williams is 33 years old; the segregationist South African policy of Apartheid was officially gone when he was a child there, although it still lingered in the air a bit.
Unlike how the Soweto Gospel Choir now integrates music, hard lines were drawn at that time between the races of South Africa.
“You were colored, white, black and Indian,” Williams says. “Colored was better than black, but under white.”
Some of the group’s music originates from behind the prison walls that kept Apartheid in place.
“Apartheid was a time, in South Africa, where it didn’t work in the black man’s favor to speak out against the oppressive white man,” Williams says. “In prison, if they were heard speaking, the wardens, the guards, thought they were plotting to attack them. So black men began singing songs, to communicate.”
The group’s current tour is in part a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, who died in December. The human-rights activist spent more than 27 years in prison for his part in bringing Apartheid to an end. He was released in 1990, and four years later became the first black president of the country.
The Soweto Gospel Choir performed several times with Mandela in the audience, and met him on a couple of occasions.
“He was a humble person,” Williams says. “When you walked in his presence, he changed the whole atmosphere. He loved his music. If people were singing, he would also sing, and he would be dancing to it.”
South Africa is without a figure as towering as Mandela. But perhaps there is no need for one now, Williams suggests, because of Mandela’s work and personal sacrifice. Now, he says, the citizens of South Africa need only to follow the path laid out.
“Each man is to fulfill his own purpose,” Williams says.
He sees Apartheid as an anachronism, “irrelevant now. We are all living as one happy family.” That is the Rainbow Nation that the tour speaks of.
Politics, Williams insists, is not a part of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s mission. Yet the unrelentingly upbeat music, from a land that once followed a regulated policy of discrimination, finds itself touring a country uncertain of its own racial lines. South Africa elected a black man president 14 years before it happened in the United States — and some Americans point to race as they question the legitimacy of the presidency of twice-elected Barack Obama. The Soweto Gospel Choir opened this tour in Florida, where the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law is under fire after two men were acquitted of murder charges after shooting African-American teens.
“People can change clothes and hairstyles daily,” Williams says. “If the mindset of man doesn’t change, things will not change.”