The Lion Sleeps Tonight in Soweto
The raspy tone of ‘Black Velvet’ singer Alannah Myles channeled its way through female Soweto Gospel Choir soloists on Saturday, April 14 at the Barclay Theatre.
The 25-member Grammy award-winning choir effortlessly sings Bob Marley’s ‘One Love,’ ‘Siteng Sediba’ (that’s ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to you) and ‘Amazing Grace,’ along with modern and traditional South African spiritual favorites.
Singing in Sotho, Zulu and English, the lively and soulful five-year-old choir was as static as their brightly colored outfits were bland. Accompanying every song was some form of choreography to go along with forceful singing that, especially in the second half of the first set, felt as refreshing as the first drops of water from a high-pressure shower head.
Accentuating the choir’s collective vocal strength were pauses of silence in numerous songs, followed by more bursts of harmony. On occasion, the entrances of all 25 members could have been more crisply attacked.
Although the choir’s choice of opening songs may not have been ideal, the sense of hope and joy in their powerful voices and swaying bodies was impossible to miss.
The choir feels blessed to celebrate South Africa’s first 10 years of democracy and welcomes the future with optimism and musical tributes to God.
Perhaps the most joyous moment of the show came with Nomvula Gebashe’s solo in ‘Asimbonanga/Biko,’ sung in Zulu with the choir and co-lead Bongani Khumalo. Gebashe reached out for Khumalo’s hand in her solo as though she felt a strong connection to God, or at least to the music.
The Soweto Gospel Choir proves that performers who clearly enjoy themselves on stage are a great pleasure to watch.
While many of the traditional songs in Zulu and Sotho featured the choir on their own or with percussion, the presence of a keyboard and drums brought a distinct modern flair to inspiring songs like ‘Weeping,’ which was framed by a tasteful bass guitar and would be at home on KOST 103.5 FM.
What has probably helped the Soweto Gospel Choir’s relatively quick rise to the top of the world music charts is its healthy doses of familiar gospel music with South African musical praise.
The choir’s performance of ‘Amazing Grace,’ for example, brought down the house with the group’s professionalism combined with a familiar, crowd-pleasing song. The four soloists were met by occasional shouts from the audience during the performance.
It really doesn’t matter what anyone could throw at the choir musically; they have a remarkable ability to infuse international favorites with South African flavor, yet still retain the original sound adequately. Even the choir’s multilingual vocal warm-up routine became an applause-worthy number.
For a choir priding itself on beautifully singing ‘African and international gospel in an African way,’ it came as little surprise that their encore was ‘Oh Happy Day.’ The performance of that incredible American spiritual rivaled that of ‘Sister Act 2’ and reaffirmed the choir’s strength: vibrancy in song and spirit.