The Sounds and Souls of the Soweto Gospel Choir

The Soweto Gospel Choir at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre

It’s been years since I’ve been to a concert.

I’m not really sure why this is the case.  I have a close friend who is as much a music lover as I am, and we have a standing commitment to see at least one concert together a year.

As we’ve been friends for some time now, we’ve taken in a lot of shows, including A Fine Frenzy in 2012, the Imagine Dragons and Tori Amos in 2014, and in 2015, Sarah McLachlan and a concert of Bollywood singing and dancing.

But after that, inexplicably, nothing.  For two long years.

But last Saturday, our slump came to an end at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, where we went to see the Soweto Gospel choir.

It was my friend who found the news of this concert, all the way back in July.  The choir was performing songs for the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday.

The show began with a word from the concert promoters’ spokesperson, who informed us that the choir would be performing songs in nine of South Africa’s 11 official languages.

As a country, South Africa has endured its problems with institutional racism and violence against black people.  But I just love the idea of so many languages being recognized on a national scale.

The medieval, Frankish King Charlemagne famously said that “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”  It seems to me this truism also applies at a national level, as well as that of the individual.

From there, the all-black choir emerged, nine men and nine women, dressed in vibrant clothing decorated with eye-catching geometric patterns.  They launched into the performance with energy—with a bold verbal statement that I didn’t understand (it being in one of the 10 other national languages), but nonetheless made me sit up straighter in my seat.

Then the singing started, the tight, robust harmonies in distinctly African tones, at times accompanied by keyboard and traditional drums, at times done a cappella.

Many of the songs were joyful and uplifting, punctuated by exultant whistles and ululations, rhythmic clapping, and spirited dancing.  Specific dance moves included energetic leaps, twirls, high knees, some stunts reminiscent of breakdancing, and one dramatic trust fall by a female singer straight back into the arms of her co-choristers.

At other times, the songs were solemn and reverent, addressing Nelson Mandela and his legacy of resistance directly.  A notable moment in the concert—also the first time the choir sang in English—was a medley of powerful songs about freedom from oppression.

The lyrics were bold, their demeanor unbending, and their fists raised high with black power to close off the first act of the performance.

A tradition of song

As I understand it, group singing and dancing in general is a strong cultural tradition of South Africa.  In 2015, a group of South African firefighters came to Canada to help fight the wildfires near Slave Lake, Alberta.

They quickly made national headlines when, in the middle of the boreal forest, they prefaced their shift on the fire line with a motivational group song and dance.

~

In 2016, more firefighters from South Africa came to help battle the blaze in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  This time, they broke into song and dance when they arrived at the Edmonton airport.

That moment

For the concert’s second act, the choir had a wardrobe change into even brighter colours.  They also did more showcasing of their male and female soloists.

The female soloists were belters in the gospel tradition that is evidently a cross-cultural phenomenon.  And one male soloist in particular, singing a verse of “Amazing Grace”, had the most amazingly plangent basso.

The choir sang more songs in English in this act, including “Amazing Grace”, “Wade in the Water”, and “Natural Woman”, in tribute to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin

I’ve written before about the two things I need to take place at a concert for me to call it a good show:

  1. Hearing a song I previously disliked played in such a way that gives me a new appreciation for it
  2. That moment: a moment when some unpredictable, elusive, awe-inspiring event occurs during the performance.

For this concert, as sometimes happens, these two things occurred at the same time, during the choir’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Unpopular opinion: I’ve never cared much for this song.  I always found it over-performed by everyone who (rightly or wrongly) considers themself a soulful singer.  It’s also unbearably melancholic.  Sorry, not sorry.

I don’t know if it’s owing to my great love of another famous chorus by the same name, but Cohen’s piece worked so much better as a choral arrangement.  The singers’ strong, tight harmonies and bold, emphatic descants—both in English and other languages— literally gave me chills.

Finally, of course, the show featured an audience participation portion, which I generally dislike at concerts.  This time, however, it felt culturally appropriate, seeming to transform each of us from spectator to yet another member of the choir.

We were taught a simple lyric and told to sing as loudly as we could, while we waved our arms, as one, in celebration and gratitude for the great gift of their music and their souls.

What’s the most recent concert you’ve been to?

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

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6 thoughts on “The Sounds and Souls of the Soweto Gospel Choir

  1. Wow. Thank you for sharing.

    A number of years ago, my then-teenage daughter and I had the honor of participating in a multiracial multi-generational Gospel choir which gave a concert, for Black History month, at the Princeton U. chapel. The choir members and lead singers, all from Trenton, were amazing. Such voices! And contagious love of music.

    Like

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