Hazel Kandaya charts the history of South Africa's award winning SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR
The recent Grammy Award in the Best Traditional World Music Album category for 'African Spirit' by the Soweto Gospel Choir is the latest accolade in the five year history of the South African musical ambassadors. The choir's flamboyantly colourful on-stage performances have brought them international popularity and their recent 26 town tour of Britain in February and March showed that their wiley mix of African and Western songs, both gospel and secular, clearly connect with the non-church going audience. Choir master David Mulovhedzi spoke to journalist Christopher Heron recently about the particular role he sees for the Soweto Gospel Choir in breaking down racial barriers.
"I think the Soweto
Gospel Choir has played a very important role because most of our
local shows are completely integrated and multi-cultural. There are
white people, black people and a variety of ethnic groups who attend
our shows. It doesn't matter which area we perform in, there is a
mixed audience. We have programmes where if we do a 'corporate'
function, we find that whites will dominate the crowd. It's not like
before, when if an African group was to perform only Africans would be
at that venue. Currently, it is a completely multi-racial audience.
You will find that on TV or on the news or wherever the Soweto Gospel Choir
performs, an important role in the programme is bringing together both
white and black people."
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 when some Australian promoters went to Johannesburg to see a show called Umoja. It was after a stirring performance of gospel music in the show that the idea to form a gospel group to tour Australia came about. Choir master David Mulovhedzi was given the task of auditioning groups from different churches and communities in search of talent. Some of the key players in the choir were discovered during this time. These include Lucas Deon Bok, David's assistant and also the choir's bass player who has been in the music industry since the age of seven, and the choir narrator, 19-year-old Sipokazi Luzipo.
Speaking to George Luke from Christian Herald newspaper, David said, "After auditioning, we ended up with 32 voices from which the current line-up was formed. Since they were all from a church background to begin with, getting them used to the songs we'd be performing wasn't difficult at all."
The choir sings in six of the 11 South African languages, and also English. Intriguingly they sometimes include wedding songs in their repertoire. Said David, "Even though they're not considered 'Christian' music, we believe that marriage is a gift from God, so we include them in our show."
After their successful Australian tour the choir stayed together and have since toured the world and recorded successful albums 'Voice Of Heaven' (2005), 'Blessed' (2006) and 'African Spirit' (2007). 'African Spirit' is dedicated to Clifford Hocking, one of the founding members of the choir who has now passed away. David spoke about how special the album is to the choir: "We had to name this album 'African Spirit', which carries the meaning that Africans, especially South Africans, fought to be spiritually and mentally free. We did everything in a way that respected God. We prayed for Africans to be free. And today, we live in a democratic country. We call the South the 'Rainbow Nation'. There is so much happening and, hence, we feel that Africans are virtually free. We dedicated the album to the 'African Spirit' we experienced and, of course, to our late director, whom we felt had done so much for the gospel choir. When we produced and recorded this album, we wanted a couple of songs that would reflect what a great man he was; one who helped the Soweto Gospel Choir become who we are today."
Cross Rhythms and BBC journalist Mike Rimmer caught up with choir members Zippo and Anele during their visit to Birmingham. Anele described singing with the choir: "When you sing with the choir it's a very great experience because one is an artist [and] it has been a dream to perform on the platform the choir has been giving us as musicians from Soweto. So it has been a very great experience performing because we perform before princes and very great high people in the society."
Soweto will for many be linked to the tragic violence that occurred there during the dark days of Apartheid. Zippo was asked whether any of the choir members went through the dark times. "Not most of us but some. The older members, they are part of that scene. During those times the only thing the South Africans had was music. They went to churches and they used to sing some hymns and gospel songs just to ease their pain, you know. They only asked God to kind of help them when they were in a situation so the music has been a very important role in their lives."
So are all the choir members Christians? Said Anele, "Not all of them but some come from backgrounds where our parents are Christians so most of us, even though we are old enough now and we can make our choice. But most of them have the background of Christianity."
The choir's performance at the 2007 World Aids Day concert was one of their big achievements. The concert, held in Cape Town last November, was organised by the Nelson Mandela HIV-AIDS Foundation. David remembered it as a "marvellous experience". He said, "We found ourselves sharing a stage with Bono, Queen, Anastacia, Beyonce and several other international stars. When we received the invitation, it was a real honour for us. Most of the other acts asked us to back them. The choir was so excited, being asked to back people like Peter Gabriel and Jimmy Cliff. It was wonderful."
The choir contributes greatly to their nation's fight against the HIV/Aids epidemic. They have founded two charities, one called Vukani, meaning "arise", and the other called Nkosi's Heaven. The money that the choir raises and donations are used to help the helpless through these charities, especially children. Said David, "AIDS is such a cruel disease which is still plaguing South Africa. When the Soweto Gospel Choir tours around the world, we preach the Gospel. Whenever we offer to help children, there are still kids that are left behind. We think of those kids, how nobody can see them. Therefore, with the donations that we receive at our shows we buy clothes, blankets, the bare necessities for those kids. We make a better life for them as orphans. Sometimes, they cannot depend on their government, so we have to play a part in assisting those kids. During our shows, we do our best so that it's not only about entertaining people and touring the world, but we have a duty to fulfil. We know that the orphans must also be looked after."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.