7 May 2008
Behind the success of the Soweto Gospel Choir is an unlikely story that few have heard.
“Australia was the beginning of everything for the choir,” executive producer and director Beverly Bryer says.
Three Australian producers were responsible for the formation of the choir after a twist of fate left them with a pile of bookings to fill.
It proved an unremarkable start for the internationally acclaimed group that has won two Grammys.
The year was 2002 and a Welsh choir had pulled out of an Australian tour organised by Andrew Kay, Clifford Hocking and David Vigo.
“The Welsh choir decided they weren’t available for their own reasons,” Kay says. “We had booked and paid deposits at 23 venues around Australia and had to find a replacement act.”
In South Africa early that year to consider touring the musical Umoja, Kay was introduced to the choir director, Pastor David Mulovhedzi.
“It was the choir from the Holy Jerusalem Church, a small church run out of his garage,” Kay says. “They sang beautifully but they had no resources.”
Back in Australia seven months later and without an act to tour, Kay phoned Bryer, asking her to help prepare the choir to tour here and New Zealand in three months.
“It was an extraordinarily silly thing to do because it was so dangerous,” Kay says.
Within a month, Bryer and Mulovhedzi had auditioned and chosen 32 singers to be known as the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“We took photographs at the audition and we used them for press advertising. Before the choir had their first rehearsal we’d gone on sale in Australia,” Kay says.
The next month the choir recorded an album, Voices of Heaven, to be sold on tour.
Another month later they were on a plane to Australia, where they received rave reviews and performed sell-out shows at the Sydney Opera House.
Bryer says: “It’s quite phenomenal and ridiculous when we look at it five years later with all the awards and success. It was almost a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
In Soweto, talented choirs are common and music a way of life, but at first Bryer didn’t think the group would succeed.
Kay says: “When I first rang Bev, and she is a bit embarrassed by it now, her first words were, `African choirs are boring’. We said, `They don’t have to be and it’s your job to make it not boring’. She made it a theatrical event.”
Bryer says: “It was more a world music experience we were looking for.
“The choir as it is today is a choir made up of people who are believers and belong to a whole range of churches, and it is to them a religious experience,” she says.
Proud though they are, neither Bryer nor Kay can put their finger on why the choir is so successful.
“They have the X-factor,” Bryer says. “They have this absolute energy, love of singing and vibrancy. Even when you watch them rehearse, it just comes out.
“They can be tired, they can be in a bad mood, but they get on that stage and they have so much raw energy and passion.”
A good repertoire also goes a long way.
“Gospel music can go on for 20 minutes a song but we’ve learnt to get songs that will appeal to everyone. We’ve made it not just a choir, we’ve made it a show so it’s not just people standing there singing,” Bryer says.