Who knew a sleety, gray January day could hold so much light? Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series continued with the renowned Soweto Gospel Choir presenting a vibrant program called “African Grace:” a colorful explosion of sound in the dead of winter.
This Grammy-award-winning ensemble, founded less than ten years ago, has performed for such luminaries as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. They have traveled the world and have just launched into the early stages of a North American tour that will take them to 45 states as well as Canada.
The Soweto Gospel Choir did more than perform during their visit to Boone, NC. Earlier in the day, ASU Gospel Choir and several local church choirs participated in a workshop with Soweto members. Appalachian voices were able to participate in learning, using the traditional teaching process integral to the art form of this type of gospel music, a South African greeting song: “Hlohonolofatsa.” Vusimuzi Shabalala, the musical director, taught ostinati to each section by rote, and the entire piece was built piece by piece, up to the point that the irrepressible Shimmy Jiyane could add choreography. The sight of four choirs from two halves of the world shedding sweaters, clapping, singing, and dancing together is not one easily forgotten.
The main event, however, was Soweto’s presentation of “African Grace.” The songs feature a variety of Zulu and English, sacred and secular, traditional South African and Simon and Garfunkel. Presenting grace of form and grace of God in one program is a tall order, but the choir pulled it off to perfection. Members reflect and present their own cultural heritage, but also possess the ability to incorporate that of others. While most of the selections were a multicultural mix of blues, gospel, and traditional African influences, some songs had the distinct tone and style of an A.M.E. revival deep in the American South — albeit with South African diction. “Jesu Ngowethu” and “Swing Low” sounded as different as their origins would imply, while “This Little Light of Mine/M’Lilo Vutha” brought the disparate worlds together into a beautiful celebration of international faith and harmony.
Between numbers, the members spoke with clarity and polish. The costumes were brilliant, the songs powerful, the sound heavenly, and the dancing exuberant. These guys have moves that would make Dick Van Dyke turn positively green. Special recognition was also earned by the supporting members of the crew. Tasteful lighting and masterful sound engineering emphasized the strengths of the ensemble. While this reviewer is a minimalist when it comes to amplification, the mix was superb and solidly enhanced the performance.
While the accompanied “Arms of an Angel” was clearly the audience favorite, it is impossible not to note the comparative strength of a cappella numbers. Soweto’s voices shine best when accompanied only by djembe. This choir’s most impressive work is the medleys of traditional South African songs with American gospel favorites, such as “Mathanjeni/If You Ever Needed the Lord.” It is both the blend of voices and the blend of cultures that gives the Soweto Gospel Choir its characteristically vibrant, joyous sound.
By the end of the program, all of Farthing Auditorium rose up and turned “Pata Pata” into an exuberant mass dance party — quite literally. The enthusiastic audience was not content with only one encore and demanded to sing and dance along to yet another: “Oh, Happy Day.” Soweto Gospel Choir could not have chosen a better ending for their ecstatic and powerful performance.
The tour continued with a performance in Asheville, Sunday, January 29 at 4:00 PM at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.