“Africa is like a beast that has been sleeping all along but has now woken up,” says David Mulovhedzi, musical director of the Soweto Gospel Choir, “And now we’re showing the world what we’ve got.”
Like all black South Africans who lived through the punishing rule of apartheid, Mulovhedzi remembers that sleeping beast well. Freedom, to Mulovhedzi, is not just a concept. It’s something he has only recently tasted for the first time.
“I have lived in the two worlds, what I saw before and what I’m looking at now,” says the 60-year-old Mulovhedzi. “Now, I see freedom, and the new generation enjoying themselves. They go wherever they want. South Africa is a free country. Even the tourists, when they come from different countries, are free to walk wherever they want. The new generation is really enjoying the fruit of the old people.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir, Mulovhedzi says, is the sound of that freedom—and of hope, love, righteousness and, of course, faith. Formed in November 2002 by Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, the choir’s executive director, the group is comprised of 34 voices (pared down to 26 when touring), among them some of Africa’s greatest gospel singers, culled from various church choirs around the country. The choir has toured internationally and has released three albums, the newest being African Spirit. The title has great significance for Mulovhedzi.
“African spirit means Africa has a reason,” he says. “The whole world was waiting for Africa to show them, ‘What did you have all along? What can you do? What is your music?’ And here we come with the best CD of the Soweto Gospel Choir, called African Spirit, and people will definitely enjoy that. Africa is free, Africa is enjoying life with the rest of the world, and we are happy about that.”
As they did on their two previous albums, Voices From Heaven and Blessed (both released in the U.S. in 2005), the Soweto Gospel Choir, on African Spirit, augments traditional South African gospel with songs not of South African origin. On the debut, they gave the holy treatment to the traditional “Amazing Grace” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross.” Blessed included “Oh Happy Day,” the best-known version of which was a Top 5 hit in the U.S. for the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969, and “I Bid You Goodnight,” originally a Bahamian folk tune popularized by Joseph Spence. The album also featured one of South Africa’s greatest contributions to the international lexicon, Solomon Linda’s “Mbube,” better known by its adapted titles of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Wimoweh.”
African Spirit fine-tunes the mix. One highlight is the live cover of U2’s “One,” sung by Bono with the choir backing him at the historical 46664 AIDS awareness concert in Capetown—with honoree Nelson Mandela in attendance. The album also includes two Bob Dylan songs, “Forever Young” and the semi-obscure “I’ll Remember You,” Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” (as well as “Rivers Of Babylon,” sung in Cliff’s film The Harder They Come by the Melodians) and Bob Marley’s “One Love”—all gospelized by the Choir, many of whose members are in their twenties.
The new album is different, Mulovhedzi explains, “in that we’ve got more modern sounds. We want to include even the young generation in our music, those who like the latest type of music. But of course we are not forgetting our traditional gospel. The combination works out lovely because we entertain both young and old at the same time. It’s an entertaining type of music and it’s not only for religious people. Even the man on the street, when we sing, he enjoys this type of music.”
In concert the true spirit of the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the breadth of talent within its ranks, comes to the fore. Several alternating lead vocalists are utilized, and the group’s traditional garb and stirring choreography make for stunning visuals. Although muc