14 September 2004
Royal Festival Hall, London 3/5
There is nothing like the sound of an African church on a Sunday morning, and even in Soweto, back in the apartheid era, the hymns and gospel songs thundering out across the shacks and slums provided an exhilarating reminder of the community’s beliefs and defiance.
Ten years on from Majority Rule, the Soweto Gospel Choir set out to revive that spirit and celebrate the anniversary of their independence. But they did so in a performance that was aimed squarely at the mass market in the west.
This 27-piece choir specialises not just in gospel but in African pop spectacle. They came on wearing brightly coloured costumes, which were changed several times during the show, and at times concentrated as much on their high-kicking dance routines and bursts of comedy as they did on the music.
The choir started promisingly enough with a nod to the classic township styles of the Manhattan Brothers, followed by a series of cheerful traditional songs, and then a rousing treatment of two of the best white protest songs from the apartheid era, Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga and Peter Gabriel’s Biko. After that, they played it safe. There were pleasant, if unremarkable, versions of Amazing Grace and Wimoweh, while a potentially intriguing treatment of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to
Cross was sabotaged by the decision to use some of the singers as a mundane backing band, playing guitars and keyboards. In the second half, a lament for migrant workers was equally marred by some mawkish theatrics.
Once they included a burst of the Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon hit, Homeless, comparison with that other highly commercial South African massed choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was inevitable. For, try as they might, the Soweto choir cannot match the spine-tingling harmonies of Mambazo at their best. The singers did eventually persuade the audience to get up from their seats, but only by singing the South African national anthem.