By Todd von Kampen
March 28, 2014
All the peace and joy that Nelson Mandela wished for South Africa — and the world — poured out in waves Thursday night from the voices and bodies of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
The aural and visual impressions inside the Holland Performing Arts Center almost defy summary. Soaring soloists. Claps and stomps. Swirling costumes of almost every imaginable color. The pulsing rhythm of the djembe, occasionally joined by a Western rhythm section. And, always, the relentlessly gorgeous harmonies that rejected the darkness of minor keys.
Over the course of their two-hour concert, the choir’s 22 members — who sang in African languages about three-fourths of the time — demonstrated the power of music to communicate universal thoughts and emotions even when a song’s tongue is strange to the listener.
Their performance, part of Omaha Performing Arts’ Plus series, incorporated several beloved African-American spirituals and gospel hymns.
The choir paid musical tribute to the first black president of South Africa with “Asimbonga/Biko,” inspired by Mandela’s many years in prison under white rule. The English translation of the chorus drives home the isolation endured by Mandela: “We have not seen him / We have not seen Mandela / In the place where he is / In the place where he is kept.”
It was unfortunate that such a feast of the senses wasn’t experienced by something much closer to a full house in the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall. The toll from both the Thursday night date and the competing Lady Antebellum concert at the CenturyLink Center was evident to anyone who glanced around the main floor.
Founded in 2002, Soweto Gospel Choir draws deeply from the well of native African chants and dances that also survived the slave-ship passages to profoundly shape music in the Americas. The group’s repertoire also draws from its members’ South African churches.
No fewer than 15 members took lead singing roles during the concert, their voices uniformly standing out from the thrilling four-part harmonies of the remaining members. One of the night’s most memorable songs was “Lizalis’indingalako/Thina Sizwe,” in which soprano Zanele Ngcamu and alto Sibongile Makgathe let their voices take flight above the ensemble with passionate love and hope.
The choir’s medley of “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were also worthy of note. After Makgathe led the way in the opening number, Mandla Modawu stepped forward and earned the title of “superbass.” Many a singer has turned in a memorable performance on “Swing Low,” but few can rumble as audibly and lowly as Modawu.
Concertgoers were uniformly pleased by the many African-language songs, but they were most driven to clap and sing along by English-language songs like “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” “This Little Light of Mine” and especially “Amen.” The choir also delivered Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” with a majestic passion borne from friendship and hope.
After “Angel,” the choir closed its regular set with “Pata Pata” in honor of the famed South African singer Miriam Makeba. “Amen” and The South African national anthem followed as encores, with the latter’s final words delivered in English: “Sounds the call to come together / And united we shall stand / Let us live and strive for freedom / In South Africa our land.”