By Mal Byrne
February 26, 2018
So spiritual that it could have shaken the most ardent of atheists.
The late Nelson Mandela (Madiba) was one of the coolest world leaders in recent memory. Not only was he esteemed for the personal sacrifice that he made to end apartheid in South Africa and the grace with which he led the country for five years as President, but he was the only world leader with some decent dance moves. With a life-affirming, exuberant tribute to the Father of South Africa consisting of a mix of English language standards and South African originals, the Soweto Gospel Choir converted a sedate Adelaide audience from polite clappers to swaying Pentecostal chanters and hand-wavers – and all in just over an hour.
The choir is only 17 strong plus a couple of frenetic drummers and the occasional keyboard. Yet, the breadth and depth of the sounds that it generates is stunning. The harmony parts are also complex and I could always hear four parts and I suspect more at times. The English language songs – John Hiatt’s Have a Little Faith in Me, James Brown’s I Feel Good and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – were performed sincerely and skilfully, but were perhaps a fraction stilted. The best English language song was When the Saints Go Marching In where the links between African Gospel and its Afro-American derivation were apparent. However, I preferred the South African material. Even though I couldn’t understand a word (apart from Peter Gabriel’s tribute to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and a further song that was a direct tribute to Mandela himself), the choir’s vibrant, unabashed energy and passion communicated the message, even though it was being transmitted in the country’s 11 different languages. I also loved the dancing with its uplifting enthusiasm and athleticism.
The Soweto Gospel Choir is a wonderful ambassador for South Africa and music generally. Madiba would have been looking down, smiling and probably shimmying in time.