While some art forms allow one to contemplate in isolation, live musical performance compels audiences to engage their senses. The South African-based Soweto Gospel Choir provides such an experience. Performing at Hill Auditorium tonight, the Soweto Gospel Choir exudes a vibrating musical and spiritual pulse.

Chelsea Trull
Members of the Soweto Gospel Choir perform together. (Courtesy of UMS)

Under the musical direction of David Mulovhedzi, the choir brings together local talent from the churches and communities in and around Soweto, an apartheid ghetto outside Johannesburg, South Africa made specifically for Blacks. Drawing on the musical traditions of South African gospel music, the Soweto Gospel Choir presents a dynamic blend of a cappella folk anthems with contemporary gospel set to a live band. Keyboard instruments, bass and electric guitars merge with the deep drone of an enormous African drum. Handmade djembe drums offer complicated rhythms and a range of tones that compliment the choir’s rich harmonies.

The choir draws on the diverse backgrounds of its 26 members, incorporating pieces sung in more than eight different languages including English, Swahili, Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. “It is a great collaboration, a blend of what each choir member considers ‘home,’ ” said Assistant musical director Lucas Deon Bok.

“We try to tell a story … to speak of a journey,” explained Bok. The first segment of the performance will focus on traditional African spirituals that evoke themes of the promised land, faith and hope. The second section features a traditional dance that celebrates and welcomes the coming rain. The energized clapping and stamping of the choir complements this act of communal praise.

The final section gives voice to the struggles of women in the African community. Pieces include a traditional Zulu wedding song in which a male soloist pleads, “Come with me down Paradise Road, this way please, I’ll carry your load.”

Tonight’s performance features music from the choir’s debut album, Voices From Heaven. Released in 2002, Bok considers Voices to be a “miracle CD,” produced after the choir had only been together for a month. Three years later, the ensemble has become an internationally recognized ensemble. Bok said that today the choir rehearses and performs at a deeper level, “with a more developed sense of friendship.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir extends this sense of community out into the world. The choir’s charity foundation Vukani, which means “to arise,” distributes funds to Soweto based AIDS orphan outreach programs that receive no government or private funding. 

Proceeds from album sales and audience donations have been used to supply food, cooking appliances, schooling fees and medication to hundreds of children. Bok encouraged others to seek their own meaningful path, hoping that “this performance will inspire others to live their dreams more fully and with optimism.”

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