Saturday, October 25, 2008

The African Spirit

Better brush up on your Zulu and Sotho languages.

And then when the Soweto Gospel Choir comes to a city near you...go.

Trust me. Go.

I went to see them at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton on Thursday, not fully knowing what to expect. All I knew is they were kinda famous, had won a couple Grammys, and were from South Africa. And when I saw the the list of upcoming events a couple months ago, I knew it was time for another gospel fix.

(unsolicited plug: if you haven't seen a show at the PAC yet, you really should. if you're not from Wisconsin, you should fly in. what a fantastic, intimate way for a couple thousand people to see a performance. been there twice, and can't wait for another reason to go back.)

This night of gospel was a bit different from what I've seen in the past. All of the 26 performers on stage were dressed in bright, colorful costumes, the African rhythms and beats were unmistakable, and the voices...ohhh, the voices! One of the most energetic shows I've seen. Period. They deserve high praise for putting forth an effort like that night after night.

The choir has only been in existence for six years, coming out of the South Western Townships (hence, the acronym) near Johannesburg. They've won Grammys the past two years for Best Traditional World Music.

The list of musical artists with whom they've performed includes Diana Ross, Celine Dion, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox and Queen. They've sung for Oprah, Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African President Nelson Mandela. And they've also recorded with Robert Plant and Peter Gabriel.

The two-hour concert included about 25 songs, many sung in the native Zulu and Sotho languages, accompanied by drums and dancing. Several traditional American songs were mixed in, like "This Little Light of Mine," "Swing Down," and a rendition of "Amazing Grace" that got a standing ovation. One of the highlights for me was a version of Bob Dylan's "I'll Remember You," that was so powerful.

One of the members introduced the choir's unique African spirit and the evening's spiritual journey of songs, "whether expressed through the love of God, the love of our fellow man, the love of coming together as a people, or simply the love of life, and all the beauty it has to offer us."

The group entered the theater from the back, filling the room with their voices as they walked down the two aisles to the stage. And as the night went on, the applause grew louder, some people not content with polite clapping close to their chests, but instead reaching up over their heads to express their appreciation.

About halfway into the show, one lady stood up in her seat and started moving to the beats, and I half expected that after intermission, there might be people getting up and dancing in the aisles. Didn't happen, though. (perhaps if I would have been the instigator, hmm?)

The group's second of two encores was "Oh Happy Day," which brought the crowd back to its feet, and had many audience members waving to the performers as they left the stage.

One reviewer on the PAC's website said it better than I can, so I'm going to borrow from him and hope he doesn't mind. He said, "One doesn't have to be particularly religious or musical to appreciate this wonderful example of gospel. One simply has to have a soul. And frankly, if you hear Soweto Gospel Choir and are not moved, you very possibly have no soul."


"I'm associated with gospel music
in the minds of millions of people."
—Pat Boone


  1. Sounds fantastic. I'll Remember You has always been an emotionally stirring Dylan song so would love to hear their take on it.


  2. And I thought the upcoming musical distance between seeing Matt Nathanson and Y&T couldn't be beat...I stand corrected!!! :)

  3. Scott...Definitely an inspirational show. They're incredibly worthy of their Grammys.

    TheKid...I do tend to jump all over the spectrum, don't I? I think Nathanson to Y&T is quite a leap, though.

    But where would Soweto fit in there, I wonder? Perhaps I have a spectrum with many hidden corners. Either way...I like what I like. And I loves me some gospel!

  4. Dang. they don't come anywhere near me. But how outstanding it would be to see them in Harlem. I'll keep an eye out.

  5. If you go to Harlem to see 'em, E...let me know. I'll hop a plane for a show like that!

    (Hmm...I wish.)

    But yes. If you have a chance, it makes for a moving evening.