Saturday, 18 April 2015

SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR / A Tapestry of Sacred Music / Review

A Tapestry of Sacred Music
Esplanade Theatre
Thursday (16 April 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 April 2015 with the title "African earthy harmonies get crowd swinging".

It is a testament to the faith of a community to be united and upbeat in times of war, oppression and poverty. South Africa has had a long history of colonisation, racial discrimination and internal strife to keep its people down but judging by the sheer exuberance of the music sung by the double Grammy winning Soweto Gospel Choir in a hour-and-a-half concert, part of Esplanade's A Tapestry of Sacred Music festival, one might have thought otherwise.

The choir from the South Western Townships (an acronym of which forms its name) of Johannesburg has entertained and inspired since 2002, and its 18 singers (9 women and 9 men) with two drummers and a keyboard player were an instant hit with the audience. It dedicated their show to their “father”, Nelson Mandela, which immediately drew spontaneous applause.

Their costumes of beaded headbands (for the women) and geometric patchwork designs in a riot of rainbow colours were a visual spectacle on their own. When they began to swing and sashay with their singing of traditional South African (in Zulu and Xhosa) and English gospel hymns, an infectious beat soon spread into the house. 

Like the concert given by the Harlem Gospel Choir here in 2013, there was no fixed programme and the quick succession of hymns came with such a natural flow that time was soon forgotten. While the American group's numbers resembled those heard in an evangelical church service, the Sowetans had the more earthy and exotic harmonies, those emanating from the deepest heart of Africa.

The call and response style was much less in evidence here, and there was much humour when the men and women engaged in friendly rivalry. After the men had crooned a number in their cool insouciant manner, a lady challenged, “You're almost there. Now watch and listen.” Thereafter the women gave own their rendition of the same song, now with greater vigour and richer harmonies.

There were a number of familiar songs, from the New World where African music had taken root over the centuries. These included the spirituals Many Rivers To Cross and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and the hymn Amazing Grace where singers took turn to embellish its melodic line, more floridly with each strophe. More modern songs included Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Sarah McLachlan's Arms Of An Angel, done in their own inimitable way.

Soon the concert was drawing to an end, but the audience was getting footloose and ready to shake, rattle and roll. Encouraged by a male lead, virtually the entire house got to its feet to clap their hands and wave their arms with the encores. A standing ovation greeted I Feel Good, an extended run of Amen, Miriam Makeba's (better known as Mama Africa) Pata Pata and O Happy Day, after which the choir gaily shuffled member by member its way off stage. As they say, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.    

All photos courtesy of Esplanade Theatres by the Bay.

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