Soweto is perhaps most famous for the uprising of 1976, a turning point in the history of anti-apartheid struggle. While the members of the Soweto Gospel Choir may not have been involved in the uprising itself, they bring to the stage a spirit of unity and a pride in South African culture and languages that speaks of their strong, defiant background.
Now in its sixteenth year, with a couple of Grammys to its name, the choir has evolved into a well-oiled machine with meticulously orchestrated songs, choreographed dance moves and lavish, colour-co-ordinated costumes.
However, many of the singers and musicians started out in churches around the Soweto township and there’s something about this Fringe performance-in-a-tent that seems true to those humble roots.
The show kicks off with a string of traditional South African songs sung by different members of the choir. Voices which are lush, throaty, powerful or silky belt out the solo parts before being wrapped in a blanket of overlapping harmonies.
Thumping djembe and dundun beats fill the songs with irresistible rhythm supported by waves of syncopated handclapping, foot-stomping, whistles and ululations.
“Rolihlahla Mandela” by Mbongeni Ngema is another highlight. A choir member tells us the story of Mandela in his first language, Xhosa, whose rich, rasping tones are their own kind of music. He is followed by the choir, whose melodic harmonies and impassioned repetition of the phrase “freedom is in our hands” culminates in a silent raising of fists.
Slightly less engaging are the songs with keyboard backing. “Have a Little Faith in Me”, in particular, feels a little over-orchestrated compared to the raw honesty of the gospel numbers and traditional South African songs.
However, a slow and sultry version of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” hits the mark, as does the grand finale: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as you’ve never heard it before. The microphone is passed from hand to hand, each singer translating the word “hallelujah” into their own magical, spine-tingling sound.
Although it’s the voices that draw you in, the choir members are also enormously talented dancers and musicians, and their jubilant moves and heartfelt passion are infectious; it’s impossible to spend an hour with them and not leave with a big smile on your face.
The Soweto Gospel Choir is performing at Gluttony until March 18. Read more InDaily Fringe reviews and stories here.