Sounds of Africa
Soweto Gospel Choir gorgeous at Laxson
The sound of a lone, high female voice soared across the dark auditorium. Her words, sung in Xhosa—the South African “click” language that I fell in love with during my year living in South Africa in 1973—gave me goose bumps, later tears. A spotlight came on, revealing Sipokazi Luzipo—the voice—and the hand drummer now accompanying her. The remaining men and women of the 27-piece Soweto Gospel Choir filed onto the stage, all dressed in traditional brightly colored outfits, and together they finished the opening number, “Jikele Emanewi,” for the most recent Chico Performances production.
All night long, we were treated to jubilant singing (in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, English, Swahili and Afrikaans), drumming and dancing. No other place in the world, in my experience, produces the collectively gorgeous sound of black South African choral singing. Though many individual members shone as soloists throughout the night—any one of them could easily have commanded an audience on individual merit and “star power"—it was the group’s ability to function as a harmonious, pulsating, mesmerizing unit that is their even greater strength.
We were reminded that South Africa—now 10 years into its new democracy—was once a country living under the brutal, divisive circumstances of apartheid. “Asimbonanga/Biko” was a fusing of the Johnny Clegg and Peter Gabriel tunes honoring anti-apartheid martyr Stephen Biko: “You can blow out a candle/ But you can’t blow out a fire,” the choir sang. “Once the flames begin to catch/ The wind will blow it higher…”
The choir gave us song after song of "praise and thanks in the strongest language of all—music," as the singers put it. The people whose recent, painful past justifies their heartfelt singing of Paul Simon’s "Homeless" also stood there gloriously singing "Amazing Grace."