March 25, 2014
By Jesse Starita
Lincoln Journal Star
The beautiful harmonies born in a Johannesburg, South Africa, township 12 years ago delivered a soul-stirring two-hour set last night before 1,500 congregants at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
In the hands of the peerless Soweto Gospel Choir, those beautiful harmonies uplifted everything from Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” to lifting the audience from their seats and into the aisles during Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata.”
Still, musical influences aside, the 24-member troupe made it clear to whom this evening was owed. “Tonight is dedicated to Nelson Mandela,” singer Portia Skosana announced at the show’s outset.
From there: a vibrant orange backdrop lowered, the foreground a rainbow of magenta, teal, canary and emerald dressed singers and a lone drummer, tapping the opening notes. On “Emlanjeni/Yelele” the choir displayed a churning rhythmic force, while Johnny Clegg’s “Asimbonanga/Biko” had a reflective yearning.
But the choir did more, much more, than sing. Choir members became improvisational dancers, swinging elbows and kicking legs over their heads. They played bass, keyboards or guitar for a song or two. Like on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” when a smooth bass line anchored the vocal aerials.
After a brief intermission, the second set began with more South African traditionals, including the danceable “Shosholoza.” Then came “Swing Low,” a closer-to-home traditional featuring a few female members fervently intoning a la Gladys Knight. By the sunset of set two, the Lied’s aisles and rows turned into a dance hall. And even those who weren’t swiveling hips clapped their palms to the cadence.
However, it was Madiba – the affectionate name used for Mandela by South Africans – who got the last word.
After all the evening’s color, a stark black and white photo of Mandela illuminated the choir as they sang their country’s national anthem.