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Music review: Soweto Gospel Choir at Disney Hall

April 13, 2012 |  3:00 pm

Soweto Gospel Choir was as much to look at as to listen to Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the lively South African ensemble played the final date of an extensive North American tour. Clothed in brightly patterned fabrics that seemed to ripple with movement of their own, the group’s 23 members used choreographed motion to punctuate body-centric rhythms and pulled off high kicks verging on the lightly acrobatic; one fellow even did what appeared to be a modified version of the break-dancing move known as the worm.

“Feel free to stand up — and to dance,” said one of the choir’s principal singers before a rendition of Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata.” The audience was happy to oblige.

Formed a decade ago in the townships outside Johannesburg, Soweto Gospel Choir tends to the same choral-singing tradition as the longer-running Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and like that outfit, this one thinks on a global scale: In 2007 it collaborated with Robert Plant on a Fats Domino tribute album; the next year, the group was featured in Peter Gabriel’s song “Down to Earth,” from the movie “Wall-E.”

However, there’s a bit more showbiz in Soweto Gospel Choir than in Ladysmith Black Mambazo. During one portion of Wednesday’s concert — a kind of miniature battle of the sexes — the men pantomimed broadly comic reactions to the women’s performance, like actors in an old-fashioned Broadway musical. And some of the dancing — particularly after an intermission, when several members returned to the stage wearing form-fitting costumes — was pure athletic spectacle.

That devotion to razzle-dazzle is just one of the group’s connections to African American church music. It also shares some repertoire: “This Little Light of Mine” was propelled at Disney Hall by a drummer playing the Bo Diddley beat on a hand drum called a djembe; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was sung with Mariah Carey-style melisma by a female soloist; “Oh Happy Day,” which closed the two-hour show on a jubilant high note, had the singers giving way to four instrumentalists cranking out free-form organ funk.

Along with traditional African songs, the program encompassed pop tunes too, including Bob Marley’s “One Love” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon, which Soweto Gospel Choir performed in the slow-rolling manner of Aretha Franklin’s 1971 cover. Near the end, a quartet of singers joined an electric guitarist for a deeply sensual rendition of “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan, and the music lent credence to an introductory speech in which one choir member had said the show’s objective was to “reflect the meaning of the word ‘grace’ — not just religion, but beauty, love and the strength of the human spirit.”

The human spirit, yes — this you couldn’t miss. If Wednesday’s concert failed to deliver anything, though, it was a strong sense of any single human; even the group’s most expressive vocalists (such as the woman who sang Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”) seemed hemmed in by a responsibility to maintain the whole.

To some degree, of course, that’s the essence of choral music — and there was no doubting the powerful uniformity of Soweto Gospel Choir’s well-rehearsed sound. But for all its emotion and stimulation, the group’s performance seemed to pose a question it couldn’t quite answer: Must representing one’s culture preclude the representation of oneself?


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Photo: Soweto Gospel Choir in full regalia performing a recent concert (not from Wednesday's show).  Credit: Lorenzo di Nozzi