Given its violent, bloody history, you wouldn't think of South Africa as being part of the celestial realm. But on Soweto Gospel Choir's 2005 Shanachie debut, Voices From Heaven, the group lived up to its billing, bringing a divine spiritual sound out of that ravaged country.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the sound most people associate with South African music. And like the Soweto Choir -- which comes to the Blumenthal March 20 -- they sing gospel as well. But there are fundamental differences between the two. "The main difference between us and Black Mambazo is that we sing of a different traditional dish of gospel music and of course the modern gospel," says SGC musical director David Mulovhedzi. "Going deep into our archives of music, our vision comes to doing it slightly modern, you know, with more up-tempo songs so that the audience will enjoy with us."
Though some of his syntax is unusual, Mulovhedzi's sense of rhythm and melody expressed in speech reflects the lilting, upbeat patterns of the music, which has made it popular worldwide.
The SGC's latest offering, Blessed, is even more stunning than its predecessor. There's more presence and maturity in this outing. The 26-member choir, barely four years old, is composed primarily of young singers in their 20s. "The youngest, 19, and one or two is 33 or 42," Mulovhedzi says. "That's why onstage they're full of energy, because they're young."
And unlike Ladysmith, this choir includes women, as well as a four-piece band -- two guitars, keyboards and drums. "And of course the guys who play percussion -- about six members. They sing a few songs, then just leave their instruments and join the choir when it's singing a cappella."
The choir sings in six languages, including English. In addition to Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho gospel, the group interprets American classics like "Swing Down" and covers the Edwin Hawkins Singers' version of "Oh Happy Day."
SGC's "Oh Happy Day" is a funky version that sounds like something the Staples Singers would have released in their "I'll Take You There" days. The choir's also backed by a rhythm section that's more appropriate to a smoky nightspot than a house of worship. But it's still churchy, featuring a couple of female soloists who manage to combine the best of Aretha and Mavis.
Mulovhedzi and SGC are obviously no strangers to American gospel. "Kirk Franklin! Yeah, I know him. He is wonderful -- we really like him." He's also familiar with popular gospel dynasty the Winans. "It helps to include songs like "Oh Happy Day" and "Amazing Grace" and "Swing Down" because we appreciate them and those are very well-known songs."
Mulovhedzi also includes elements of music that younger South African generations are fond of. Township music, or kweito, is an African version of hip-hop. "The new generation likes kweito music. And when we perform those songs, the audience gets really happy about it," he says, laughing. "So it's a little bit of kweito, but in a gospel way."
The gospel way that Mulovhedzi speaks of is a colorful one in costume as well as movement. Dressed in vibrant tribal raiment, the singers are accomplished dancers as well. High kicks and fancy footwork enhance a SGC performance. "We have to do that, because the music represents quite a number of religious groups. And some of the denominations, when they sing and dance, they do it differently," the director says. "When they pray to God himself, they hit their drums and they dance a lot and they ululate. That's how we praise God -- we dance for him and we sing -- a lot of body movement, just to show that we're very much alive and that we value God, so we've got to do all those things onstage."
Their enthusiasm as well as their sound has made the SGC an in-demand backing group for some secular performers. Ladysmith has had no problem crossing over into that realm, doing a Lifesavers commercial and recording an album with Dolly Parton. SGC would have no problem with that either.
"If somebody can approach us to do that, we'll be so happy," Mulovhedzi says. "We'll be so excited to do that with whoever will ask us. It would be such a wonderful thing." He cites the choir's appearance last November backing Diana Ross in South Africa for Unite of the Stars. "So if somebody can say, 'Soweto Gospel Choir, I'd like to do some few tracks with your guys,' I would greatly appreciate that."
Mulovhedzi says he has no issues doing material that isn't "Christian music," as long as it's good music. The choir has worked with rockers before, such as in Capetown for one of Nelson Mandela's fund-raising events. "All the rock stars, they asked us to back them up and we did that for people like Peter Gabriel and Bono and Jimmy Cliff. I remember one of the newspapers saying, 'Soweto Gospel Choir rocks.' We can also do that -- we do not have a problem."
And whether the music is gospel or secular, the SGC still has a message. "We feel people should enjoy our show," Mulovhedzi says. "Because that's a main aim of the Soweto Gospel Choir."
The choir had one of their best audience turnouts for a 10pm Carnegie Hall show last year, despite the director's worries about their reception. "At midnight, you might have seen people still dancing and shouting," Mulovhedzi chuckles. "We thought that since it was a late show the attendance would not be so good but it was wonderful."
Regardless of the time, venue or language barrier, Mulovhedzi has found that the choir gets their message across. "Our music heals the broken hearts, the broken homes. We would like our American friends to attend our shows as much as they can because we're giving our best and we really like them to be happy, as happy as we are."