By Tony Sauro
April 05, 2014
Music is a joyful life force in Kevin Williams’ world. In his homeland, people are “just naturally gifted” with melody.
So, as South African artistic ambassadors, he and members of the Soweto Gospel Choir enjoy exporting that sound and spirit to the world.
“Each year, it’s always changed for the better,” said Williams, the group’s co-director and energetic vocalist. “Each day just gets better. Each year more exceptional. We receive open arms.”
Williams and 24 other singers and musicians plan to extend that trend Sunday when they bring their sixth U.S. tour to Stockton’s Bob Hope Theatre.
“It keeps elevating to the next level daily,” said Willliams, 33, in his second year of co-directing the group with Milton Ndlakuse. “Being from different places and different backgrounds does not matter. It’s how we feel. We make sure people feel like a better person. We share our energy, which keeps motivation in the crowd, too.”
The Johannesburg-based group’s 90-minute, 30-song show – with a four-piece band – includes tunes from its fifth album, “Divine Decade: Celebrating 10 Years” that was released Jan. 28. Its 19 tracks represent a slight shift in emphasis.
Winners of two Grammy Awards, the choir has recorded and performed “all traditional songs, church music and what you hear on the streets of Soweto,” Williams said of the southern Johannesburg township. “The idea was to collaborate with choirs and artists we’d worked with and shared stages with.”
So, the CD includes a “message” from Desmond Tutu; a version of Canadian Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”; a “Fish out of Water” remix of their collaboration with Ireland’s U2 on “Put on Your Boots”; versions of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and Jamaican Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”; and “Asilazi,” with South African Johnny Clegg.
“It’s a good sign when you run out of merchandise (CDs),” Williams said from a tour stop in Albuquerque, N.M. “We get new stock and, boom, it’s sold out.”
The recording and tour also are a fond elegy for Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and career-long supporter of the group. He died Dec. 5 at 95.
“His parting was very painful for us as a family and South Africa as a nation,” said Williams, whose group entertained Mandela frequently. “Not just the people of Africa. The world was mourning. For one man to change the feeling in the world tells you how great he was.”
Mandela, of course, represented the struggle against apartheid, the system that enforced white supremacy in South Africa. He spent 27 years in prison before emerging to national sainthood, the merciful demise of apartheid and his country’s presidency (1994-1999).
“That he was incarcerated and what he was incarcerated for, he could have come out saying, ‘Now I’m paying them back,’ ” Williams said. “He chose to stay humble. He is highly exalted and highly esteemed in South Africa and around the world. He was intellectual, articulate: ‘Love can always overcome everything.’ “
Born during apartheid in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Williams exuded music. His dad Vincent sang, mother Priscilla taught him to play guitar and his grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. Wiley) wanted him to become an attorney.
“I started off in church and in family and school,” said Williams, surrounded as a child by harmony and rhythm. “I didn’t just wake up and decide I would do music. I knew that, when people opened their mouths, it was different when they were singing than when they were speaking.”
He attended Durban’s University of Natal and has been a member of the Soweto group for 8 1/2 years.
Music deeply impacts the fabric of South African culture.
“Big time,” said Williams. “Back in the days of oppression, it was hard to speak in times of apartheid and the oppressors. We began to sing what we wanted to get across. Get the message across without anyone being hurt or abused. People sing to really express how they feel within.
“Music’s a big part of South Africa. It’s not just black, white and Asian. It’s gospel, jazz, contemporary.”
In 2002, David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer tuned the world in by forming the Soweto Gospel Choir. Its first CD (“Voices From Heaven,” 2005) topped the world music charts. The group, in varying sizes, has performed for world leaders, on major American TV shows and with a wide range of global popular entertainers.
“It’s about unifying artists, no matter the distance, miles, time or space,” Williams said. “No matter how far we are apart, music can get us together.”