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Friday, March 01, 2024

REVIEW:The Soweto Gospel Choir Michael Fowler Centre 27 February 2024 - New Zealand Aotearoa Festival Of The Arts


The Soweto Gospel Choir Michael Fowler Centre 27 February 2024 - New Zealand Aotearoa Festival Of The Arts Formed in Soweto, South Africa, by David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, and producers Andrew Kay, David Vigo and Cliff Hocking in 2002 The Soweto Gospel Choir is 30 strong ensemble. 

They blend elements of African gospel, Negro spirituals, reggae and a selection of material from the American songbook. 

Their title hints at being a spiritual group. But they are so much more than just a church group. Their albums ‘Blessed’, ‘African Spirit’ and ‘Freedom’ have won Grammies for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2006, 2007 and 2019, respectively. 

They also feature on the Peter Gabriel/Thomas Newman song "Down to Earth", written for Pixar's 2008 feature film WALL-E, which was nominated for the Golden Globe. And they’ve done work for Peter Gabriel's tenth studio album ‘’i/o’, including the tracks, ‘Road to Joy’ and ‘Live and Let Live’. 

They’ve performed for Nelson Mandela, toured internationally multiple times and racked up over 46664 concerts, to date. But they’ve never played in Aotearoa. Until now. 

Tonight’s sell out concert at the Michael Fowler Centre was years in the making. The Festival has been trying to get the Choir here for many years. But international events, COVID and other challenges have thwarted attempts. 

It was an all-ages capacity crowd. At the beginning of the concert, we were reminded of ‘Soweto’ we learn is an acronym for ‘South-Western Townships’ and South Africa’s largest Black urban complex. 

It adjoins the city of Johannesburg and was created in the 1930’s when the white government started separating Blacks from Whites, creating separate townships. Most of us know about Soweto because of the Springbok Tour protest movement in the 1980’s, the rise of the ANC and international condemnation of apartheid policies in South Africa. 

Not quite the usual 30 strong ensemble, tonight’s performers managed 15 plus a keyboardist and a drummer. But they made up for it in energy and sound. The programme, named ‘Hope’, after the Choir’s latest album, was a 2-part programme. 

The first half featured freedom from the years of struggle under apartheid. There are over 8 ‘official languages’ and each song was different – Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and Xosa - culminating in a final celebratory piece about the life of Mandela. 

Each song had a different soloist, sometimes two or three and some incredible choreography to match. Topics ranged from village life, heroes, religious themes and stories about rising up against oppression. 

The opening song, 'Nonkoneyane Ka Ndaba' by Mbongeni Ngema, is a powerful anthem, inspired by the historical figure Nkonyane Ka Ndaba. It emphasizes his strength and bravery in the face of adversity. It’s a David and Goliath theme. A freedom totem against white oppression. The accompanying dance has a tribal unity to it, yet it’s infectious and we all can’t help clapping along. Voices are both separate and together. The song is repetitive and almost like a fairy-tale rhyme, easy to get into. 

 ‘Mbayi Mbayi’ in uplifting number about the 1976 Soweto uprising. They also do a popular Sotho song ‘Joh Lefihi’, which is riotous and joyful, again with a powerful dance which all the choir are involved in. ‘Umandela Uthi Ayihlome’ (Xhosa struggle song) is about Mandela (who was Xhosa, and can trace his lineage back to the Thembu Chief Nxeko). He is preparing his people for the struggle ahead, to fight for freedom. It utilizes all the voices of the choir in an arch of vocal unity, punctuated with bird calls and clicks (which are common elements of Xhosa music). 

The spiritual ‘Judgement Day’ is completely different from what I expected from a Gospel group. This is not the sounds of Harlem or Chicago. If you’ve ever seen an African group play, you’ll know that the music includes a variety of drums and clicks, bird calls, yelps, claps, stomps and calls. Arms and legs are going full on, and the harmonies are just so perfect. 

The vocalists are spine-tingling, every one of them. From the dark velvet rich bass of the men to the mature ochre of the altos, and the shrillness of the female sopranos and male tenors. They perform their songs with such fluid yet poignant movements. Rhythm just oozes out from every pour. The energy on stage is so vibrant. Such an intense rich rainbow of sound and colour. 

After a break, the second act starts up with tunes more familiar to my ears – ‘Song and Dance’ and ‘Amen’. The men line up, Temptations style, and deliver an absolutely beautiful version of Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’. This is one of many goose bump moments. 

They also do a Dylan number, ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’. 

And because of their longstanding connection to Peter Gabriel, it’s compulsory to do ‘Don’t Give Up’, the duet he did with Kate Bush back in the 1980’s. 

No set of American Soul Freedom songs would be complete without a Staple’s number and this time it was ‘I Take You There’ that got their choir’s special treatment. And with multiple soloists and yet more tingling honey-harmonies this was yet another highlight. 

We finish on a long and jubilant version of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ which becomes a massive sing-a-long. I think the choir was genuinely moved by our response as we all sung back, stating in ovation towads the end. There were tears of joy in the eyes all around. The was a lot of aroha in the whare tonight. 

This was what festivals are about, celebrating diversity and uniqueness, music and culture, no matter where it’s from. 

Who knew I’d be won over by a choir? But this group really is special. They remain true to their multi-African roots and wear their hearts on their sleeves when performing. It’s hard to capture the absolute joy and abundant energy that flowed from the stage tonight. 

My final recommendation: if Soweto Gospel Choir ever comes to town, make sure you get a ticket. Missing out is not an option. 

1st Act 
Nonkonyane Ka Ndaba 
Bawo Xa Ndilahlekayo 
uMandela uth'aihlome (Xhosa struggle song) 
Judgement Day
Litshonile Li Langa 
Pasopa Verwoerd 
Joh Lefihi
Mbai Mbai (or Mbayi Mbayi) 
Freedom Medley 

2nd Act
Song and Dance
Love’s In Need Of Love Today 
Today You Will Be Moved 
You Gotta Serve Somebody 
Don’t Give Up 
I’ll Take You There 
Stand Up 

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