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World Music Features

Soweto Gospel Choir

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published May 4, 2006

Even the most skeptical of atheists would have difficulty not being elevated to a state of rapturous euphoria by the sound of Soweto Gospel Choir. The 32-member-strong ensemble may draw its inspiration from above, but it’s down here on terra firma that this South African bundle of joy is spreading its good news.

The issue of faith has certainly been in the news recently: who’s got it, who doesn’t, and what role the belief in a higher authority should play in our culture. But even the most skeptical of atheists would have difficulty not being elevated to a state of rapturous euphoria by the sound of Soweto Gospel Choir. The 32-member-strong ensemble may draw its inspiration from above, but it’s down here on terra firma that this South African bundle of joy is spreading its good news via its stunning new CD, Voices From Heaven (Shanachie), and a 35-city American tour beginning in late January and running till the end of March (see Tours, page 52, for details).

            The choir is little more than two years old, created by musical director David Mulovhedzi, who borrowed members of various Soweto congregations as well as his own Holy Jerusalem Choir—one singer was even recruited after appearing on the South African equivalent of Star Search. Decked out in strikingly colorful traditional clothing, and augmenting its exquisite, luxuriant group harmony and steamy solo vocalizing with eye-grabbing dance routines, the choir was an immediate hit. One notable gig found them performing in front of Nelson Mandela and 26,000 others at a fundraising concert in Cape Town and another brought them to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the U.K., where one local TV station dubbed the choir the “surprise hit” of the event.

            Voices From Heaven is a floor-raising triumph from top to bottom, its 16 tracks sung in eight languages (six of them the official tongues of their homeland) and spotlighting a number of soloists from within the ranks. Traditional South African acappella in the style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo gives way to uptempo township jive-style rousers and jubilant ballads. Among the English-language covers is a medley of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “Many Rivers To Cross” tied to the gospel standards “Going Down To Jordan” and “Amen,” and an “Amazing Grace” like no other.

            Soweto Gospel Choir isn’t only about raising their voices in song, however. The choir has established a charity foundation in association with the AIDS-fighting Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani project, aimed at assisting AIDS-orphan establishments that receive no government funding. The choir has already put significant money into the organization’s coffers, enabling the purchase of food and other essential goods. Now, that’s the spirit.