With the spontaneity of a spirit moved, the Soweto Gospel Choir honored the centenary of Nelson Mandela with songs of hope and resistance, songs born of struggle, during its finely woven performance at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall on Friday.
A backdrop of banners displaying the colors of South Africa, the performers beautifully costumed in traditional garb, each outfit a different color (including magnificent, intricately beaded collars on the women), reflecting South Africa’s status as the “rainbow nation” and celebrating its vast diversity.
Soweto Gospel Choir, formed in 2002, is a multi-award-winning group, including two Grammy Awards. They performed many of the songs off its latest album, “Freedom,” a tribute to Mandela, the father of South Africa. Born July 18, 1918, he fought for an end to apartheid, withstood cruelty and prison, and became the nation’s first black president, working throughout his life to dismantle institutional racism.
The songs included work in six languages (South Africa recognizes 11 official languages) and though I am haplessly monolingual and the program provided no guide, the messages came through via gestures, emotions, and snippets of translation. There was meaningful movement with each song, telling a story or adding texture with clapped rhythms against the drumbeats, such as “Umbombela,” emulating a train journey.
The textural quality included the unique tongue pops and consonant clicks of the languages, enhanced with whistles and ululations. That, layered with percussion and keyboard, clapping and stomping, created a rich, vibrant array. Individual voices came through, too, with many members in soloist roles.
I loved the camaraderie and unity in this performance, though I wish there was some context given to the songs and, especially, introductions for the performers. Throughout the show, members came forward as soloists or as dancers, trading places with the drummer so he could dance, too.
The dance, consistently, was more than mere exuberance. Dance served as another language, communicating coded messages and ensuring the continuance of traditions, a heritage that could not be suppressed. We saw the high kicks and jumps of traditional Zulu ingoma, as well as somersaults and social dances, including a flirtatious little partner dance. In the jubilant “Pata Pata,” they even got the audience up and grooving.
Along with the traditional South African pieces, they performed a few songs more familiar to this Midwestern crowd. “Amazing Grace,” which ended the first half, was the most staid, the choir standing with hands clasped, in support of the impressive soloists. In the second portion, “Wade in the Water,” a popular African-American spiritual, was paired with “Bawo Thixo Somandla,” a familiar Xhosa gospel song, both used in protest movements.
They paid tribute to Aretha Franklin (“amen” said choir master; “amen” responded the crowd) in a startling rendition of “Natural Woman,” and got everyone on their feet for James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” as two women – one sugar, one spice – vied for the soloist’s attentions in a sudden comic turn.
The final song was as spiritual a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as I have ever heard, arms on stage and off raised high.
The energetic performance enlivened the members of the enthusiastic but overall demure audience. I chuckled when, after we all sat down at the end one song, the leader encouraged us to stand once more, demanding our participation with tenacious good humor.
From the first moment to the last, there was a power—driven by joy, tempered with remembrance—of a people who have overcome in drastic measures a history of discrimination, but haven’t forgotten it, either, with works like “Asimbonanga/Biwo,” from the anti-apartheid movement.
These songs are in themselves victory of battle, a triumph that these musicians can travel the world singing “Umandela Uthi Ayihlome Ihlasele” and Miriam Makeba’s “Mama Ndiyalila.” Fists raised during “Freedom Medley,” with chants of “show us the way,” met fists raised in solidarity in the audience. They, like us, are still growing and striving towards equality.
Reviewed Friday, November 9, 2018. Johnson County Community Colleges “Carlsen Center Presents” at Yardley Hall.