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Soweto Gospel Choir gives spirited performance at McCain

By Christopher K. Conner

On Sunday, March 30, McCain Auditorium hosted a performance by the award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.

Formed in late 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir performs a number of songs traditionally performed in the churches of their native South Africa. Songs are sung in various languages, including Zulu,  Swahili and Sotho along with some English.

The performance began with the stage sporting little more than microphones and a drum set. The backdrop was plain and lit with colors that changed throughout the performance. Most of the color and movement was provided by the performers. Two sets of costumes, one before and one after intermission, displayed colors and patterns that complemented the energy of the performance.

While mostly unfamiliar with many of the songs, the audience had a few members that seemed to know every word and enjoyed the energetic roller coaster of the set list. From exuberant dances to mournful hymns, the Choir was able to shift back and forth without ever seeming to lose the flow or change direction too abruptly.

Several pieces were performed with subtle transitions, turning two songs into one. Combining the protest songs “Asimbonanga” by South African musician Johnny Clegg and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Swing Low”, the Choir moved skillfully over the song boundaries and made it feel like the two belonged together.

In addition to the group performance, there were many opportunities for individual Choir members to let their voices excel on their own. In solos, duets and small groups, different voices came forward and offered their unique talents. From deep bass and the rasp of Kim Carnes, the soulful intensity of each vocalist would stand alone, then blend seamlessly into the whole again.

While much of the performance was a cappella, or accompanied only by percussion, for a few songs some of the choir would pick up guitar, bass, drums or keyboard. The guitarist stuck primarily to slow, mournful solos. The bass provided a couple of jazzy bass lines.

The show included a couple of mock competitions, both singing and dancing, with members lightheartedly scoffing at the abilities of each other before ultimately applauding them.

In what seemed a spontaneous bit of audience interaction, an audience member sporting a “South Africa” jacket and carrying a South African flag shouted to the stage. In response, the Choir quickly performed a bit of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” much to the audience’s delight.

By the end of the performance, the bulk of the audience was standing and clapping along with the Choir. Despite the show ending well past 9:30, the late ending didn’t dampen the spirits of the audience, and most of those in attendance would have stayed for more.

Granted, not everyone enjoys gospel, but for those that do, a performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir is something to experience.

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