The Soweto Gospel Choir’s first album, Voices of Heaven, reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 2002, and it has been performed for former US and South African presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Awards include two Grammys (and several nominations), an Emmy and many more.
All that might make you think stadium performances. What you get in the Cornucopia Tent at Gluttony is necessarily intimate, with eight female and seven male artists singing; two of the latter also play keyboards and percussion.
A rousing speech leads into a Mandela tribute with a propulsive beat and athletic, synchronised movements. Foot-stamping dances, squeals, Xhosa clicks and shouts boost the feel-good element.
The anthemic “Rolihlahla Mandela, Freedom is in Our Hands” is followed by a stunning rendition of “Amazing Grace”, allowing individual singers to shine, and then it is time for the brightly costumed performers to really show their steps.
The meshing of “Wade in the Water” and “Rock My Soul” tips more towards contemporary black American gospel and soul but is still magnetic and draws the audience to clap along.
The choir’s skills are best evident in an a cappella song when, thankfully, there is also less sound bleeding from the adjacent tent. The next tune blends singing with humorous competitive dance moves at the front of the stage before a punchy version of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, and the audience is happily on its feet.
An encore? Of course. That was a sublime take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
A choir is all about the voices, but there are limitations here. There is no doubting the vocal skills but the audio could be better, with poor miking of the lap drum and one particular singer’s voice being too prominent. The keyboard is also often intrusive and, arguably, even redundant.
It is an inspiring show, nonetheless, and will be even better once the initial glitches are ironed out.
Soweto Gospel Choir is performing at Gluttony every night except Mondays until March 15. It is also teaming up with DJ Groove Terminator for a series of shows called History of House on February 22 and 29, and March 7, 8 and 14.
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