October 30, 2008
Soweto, as in Soweto Gospel Choir, is not a Zulu or Sotho word. It’s an acronym for south-western townships, the ones that lie outside of Johannesburg. It’s also become a famous word for a choir that was formed just six years ago and in that time has become the darling of the international world-music market, winning not one but two Grammy awards, and in back to back years.
It was that first Grammy in 2007 that woke up South Africa and embarrassed the South African Music Awards (SAMA).
We talked to Sipokazi Luzipo, who just turned 25, and has been a lead singer and the show’s narrator since the group’s formation in 2002.
She spoke by telephone from the hotel in Skokie, Ill., where they had a concert later that night.
At first she wasn’t quite sure where she was — they do practically a concert a night and all over the continent.
“We were so sad that we weren’t nominated for a SAMA that year,” Luzipo says. “Then our manager said, ‘But you have won a Grammy. I just heard.’ “
The win surprised South Africa, which “didn’t know what it had,” according to Luzipo, and next year, the SAMA people made sure they got an award, which was lucky because they got another Grammy that year, too.
Those two awards for best traditional world music in 2007 and 2008 absolutely launched the choir of young African singers (they are in their teens and 20s).
There was soon widespread interest in joining the choir and also internationally widespread interest in hearing them, so much so that another choir of 26 singers was formed and is at the moment on a tour of Europe while Luzipo’s choir is into its fourth week of a 48-city North American tour that will take the group on the road through Christmas.
They come to the Chandos Pattison Auditorium in Surrey on Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. This will be their third visit to the Lower Mainland; the previous two sold out.
It’s not hard to see why, watching their just-released DVD, Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, which came out with the new CD by the same name.
You shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that all Africans can sing — auditions to get into the choir were fierce — but you can definitely sense where Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price got their voices.
This choir is amazingly full-throated in their syncopated call and responses and there isn’t a singer who doesn’t pull his or her weight.
They also dance — their shows are full of movement — because dancing is very much an integral part of African church worship, and there’s nothing vaguely show-bizzy about their movement. And with their vibrantly coloured African costumes they’re almost as interesting to watch as to hear.
The choir has also placed number one on two Billboard world music chart albums, which has helped throw them into company, either in concert or in the studio, with the likes of Quincy Jones, Leona Lewis, Annie Lennox, Joan Baez, Mariah Carey, Bono, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Celine Dion.
What was it like to perform with Celine Dion, for example, we asked Luzipo.
“Magical. I thought at first, oh gosh, what is this going to be like? Am I going to feel intimidated? But she was so humble! They all have such a nice attitude. They even dined with us.”
She adds, “But I’m the world’s biggest groupie. I know our producer hates that. But I love celebrities! Of course, I’m quite young,” she says, qualifying her impressionable rapture. But one of the spin-offs of fame is that the choir had lunch with Nelson Mandela.
Another result of their huge popularity is that “it helps other musicians in Africa.” And then there’s the immeasurable service they’ve done to alleviate the scourge of AIDS which is riding Africa.
The choir has its own charity foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which raises money to support AIDS-orphans organizations that receive little or no government funding.
They’ve raised more than $1 million, and as if that weren’t enough, all the members of the choir get into jeans and t-shirts and distribute desperately needed goods to the afflicted in South Africa, personally involving themselves with community social programs.
The word “humble” or “humbling” is one that crops up more than a few times in conversation with Luzipo. But somehow when she says it, you’re inclined to believe that she means it.