Gainesville will host the American debut of the Soweto Gospel Choir
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 3:23 a.m.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has wowed audiences in England, Scotland, Australia and Germany and will be making its first-ever journey across the Atlantic to begin a 35-city North American tour that starts Friday in Gainesville.
Choir performs on Friday
No, that's not a mistake. The 26-member choir, with four-piece band, dancers and drummers who have shared the stage with Bono and other rock superstars, makes its U.S. debut right here in Gainesville.
Nancy Gabriel, of International Marketing Group, the booking agent for the tour, explained that Gainesville and University Performing Arts Director Michael Blachly had a valuable commodity to offer - technical/rehearsal time in the theater prior to the performance.
"We knew from experience that it would be a great place to kick off the tour. And the routing of the tour worked nicely to start in Florida and work our way up the East Coast," Gabriel says.
Blachly said a colleague in New York saw the choir perform in 2003 as part of the Edinburgh (Scotland) Fringe Festival at St. George's Church West, and then passed on a review to him from the "The Scotsman" newspaper, which among other praises stated, ". . . nothing can really prepare you for the riot of exuberance and depth of emotion emanating from this 24-piece ensemble. St. George's can barely contain such a presence - even their multi-colored traditional costumes shout out their heritage."
Based on the recommendation and review, Blachly checked to see if the group was coming to the United States, knowing it would need time and space to fine-tune the act before hitting the road.
"We provide them one of the better spaces they will come across in this country," Blachly says.
The choir will arrive in Gainesville two days prior to the debut, allowing members' body clocks to adjust following the journey. Those two extra days provide a second opportunity, as well.
"It will allow us to welcome them into this country and to make their initial experience here positive," Blachly says.
And while Gainesville may not yet be at the top of promoters' lists as a tour starting point, Blachly says to expect more. Just last year, Capella, a singing group from the St. Petersburg (Russia) Conservatory, launched its U.S. tour in Gainesville.
"We're trying to get more and more people to realize we're a premiere location and we do premiere work," Blachly says.
Sipokazi Luzipo (pronounced Sip-o-KAH-zee LU-zee-po) is a 21-year-old alto in the Soweto choir. She sing solos on four songs and also takes a turn as narrator. Speaking by phone from Hamburg, Germany, she says the members are eager to bring their music to America.
"We're excited to see the reaction the Americans have to our performance," she says. "How are they going to respond to the songs they don't understand?"
Language hasn't been a barrier elsewhere. South Africa has 11 official languages and the choir sings in five - Sotho, Venda, Zulu, Xhosa and English. Luzipo, who speaks four languages, explains that the program is narrated in English. There will also be tunes quite familiar to an American audience, including: "Amazing Grace," "Oh, Happy Day," "Many Rivers to Cross," and "Paradise Road." Many of the tunes are featured on the group's newest album, "Voice From Heaven," on the Shanachie label.
The group does a number of songs in the traditional a capella style many in America first heard in 1987 when singer Paul Simon teamed with the South African group Ladysmith Black Mombazo for the Grammy-winning album "Graceland." That traditional sound is just a starting point for the Soweto Gospel Choir.
"As much as we've got a capella, which is a true reflection of who we are, you get to hear the harmonies clearly, but we go beyond that to a place where the audience can get down and groove and have a good night," Luzipo says. "We have a lot of African rhythms with the drums and the dancers. It's very energetic, it's uplifting, and spiritual. It's a good show. We're sure the Americans are going to enjoy it."
For Luzipo, who grew up in Port Elizabeth, the choir has offered one opportunity after another. But her journey to the world stage began with what appeared to be a setback. When she was in her final year of high school, she auditioned unsuccessfully for a spot on "Popstars," a South African TV program similar to "American Idol."
"I didn't make it because I'm a big girl, I'm a very big girl, and I've got a big voice," she says.
But as part of that audition, she made it known she was interested in singing traditional music and gospel, and her singing got the attention of producer Beverly Bryer, who'd teamed with director/choirmaster David Mulovhedzi in 2002 to put together an all-star choir, using the top members of Mulovhedzi's Holy Jerusalem Choir and other church choirs in Soweto, along with the general public. Bryer eventually offered Luzipo an audition.
Luzipo says earning a spot on "Popstars" could have opened career doors inside South Africa. But the singer, who describes herself as "a church girl with a good voice who got lucky," earned an opportunity she never could even imagine.
Before joining the choir, she'd never been on a plane, never been out of South Africa. Now she's been to three continents and will soon add a fourth, and she's earned money she can eventually use for college. She's excited about the tour that will stop in 35 cities in 21 states and two Canadian provinces, but she's not quite sure what to expect.
"In South Africa, the portrayal of the U.S. is gangsters and money and a fancy life. Life is good and life is busy," she says.
The travel and opportunities have been exciting, Luzipo says, but the highlight so far has been at home, when the choir was invited to take part in the 46664 South Africa concert for AIDS awareness and relief. Members got to share the stage with former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, perform for a crowd of 30,000 in Cape Town and for a worldwide audience that could watch the concert live via the Internet, and as it was broadcast on MTV. The experience included singing backup for Bono, the Eurythmics and Queen.
"I think that was the best experience we've ever had with the choir," she says. "Every time we speak about it we get goose bumps."
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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