Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Soweto Gospel Choir at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
It was a snowy, cold, winter day but the colors, sounds and energy that radiated from the Soweto Gospel Choir turned the day sunny and warm for the cheering, crowded audience. The performance was entitled “Hope: It’s Been A Long Time Coming” and was held at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, on the campus of Lehman College/CUNY at 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, Bronx, New York. The Lehman Center has been hosting Latino artists and international companies of excellence for over 40 years and made good use of its down-time during the recent pandemic by completing the renovation stared a few years earlier.
The beautiful new dÚcor is modern and welcoming with good viewing from all seats in both the orchestra and the balcony. The stage acoustics are exceptional and the sound system is state-of-the-art.
In 2002, choir directors David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, gathered together some of the very best voices in South Africa to form The Soweto Gospel Choir. Their mission was to create a musical dialog that blended African gospel, Negro spirituals, Reggae, and American pop music … and they succeeded beyond expectations. They have won world-wide acclaim including four Grammy Awards.
This performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir of “Hope: It’s Been A Long Time Coming” is their most recent collection of songs and like all their previous shows is available on albums. This musical collection commemorates the freedom movement in South Africa as well as the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Setting the mood for this rapturous performance is a darkened stage draped with vertical banners suggestive of the rays of the sun in the group’s South African homeland. Soweto is an acronym for South Western Townships. This area adjoining Johannesburg was established by the minority white South African government as a black urban complex, i.e. a ghetto, in the 1930’s. The area developed into a hotbed of student unrest and protest against Apartheid, the Afrikaans name given to the institutionalized system of racial segregation that tore the country apart. In 1976 resistance erupted in Soweto that led to the death of thousands of mostly school-aged children. Ongoing protests over the brutal crackdown by the South Africans Nationalist Party eventually resulted in overturning the government, ending Apartheid in the 1990’s, and moving the country towards democratic rule.
The rehash of this sad history has a purpose; it created a collection of emotional protest music and freedom songs that the choir performs with passion and righteous anger. The songs are not known to me - nor is the language in which they are sung - but the commitment to their cause can be read on the faces of the artists and in their riveting body movements when they are singing. Music is universal and words are not needed to feel the emotional impact.
The performance opens with two male musicians coming on stage to stand behind their drums. A female singer enters behind them and stands with her back towards the audience. She wears a colorful patterned apron over a dress. Her shoes are white with rainbow colored soles and her hair hangs down low on her back - the lower half colored pale - while on her head she wears a wrap of twisted fabric color coordinated with her dress, and large hoop earrings. One musician blows a long powerful note into what looked like a ram’s horn and then takes his seat and begins to drum. The woman lets loose with a wailing sound and turns to face the audience singing passionately.
Slowly the full 20 member ensemble gathers with all the women costumed similarly in dresses representing every color of the rainbow including the shoes which were in varying shades of blues, reds, yellows, greens, and turquoise. The shoes are important because the singing is accompanied by foot stamping and fast-paced steps and movements that captivate and focus your attention. And then the men come out swinging legs higher than their heads in their traditional stomping dance, to the delight of the roaring audience.
They sang songs of protest and songs of faith in their native language; and they sang American Civil Rights songs and Christmas carols in English. They invited the audience to sing and clap along as they were drawn in by the enthusiastic renderings of songs foreign and domestic. Every member of the group, male and female alike was given a chance to solo and the amazing degree of singing and dancing talent plus the musicianship of the entire group was outstanding. One of the cultural niceties of the South Africans became evident when one soloist joined another in song. The new comer would bow to the singer they were joining or replacing center stage, as if to honor them, and when the song was concluded they reached out hands to clasp each other. I found this respectful behavior endearing.
When Director Mulovhedzi finally called the program to an end, the audience begged for one more song. So they closed with a stirring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which brought the crowd to its feet screaming for more. But it was over and as we exited the auditorium a soft snow was falling – flakes big enough so you could see their patterns as they landed on our clothing - while in my head I heard the refrain of Hallelujah repeating over and over again.
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