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Soweto Gospel Choir returns to Central Minnesota with a hope that never left

Academics

September 23, 2022

By Kevin Allenspach

There were days during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic when the members of the Soweto Gospel Choir wondered when they would ever sing again.

The three-time Grammy winners from South Africa, who have collaborated with Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2, were touring Australia when live performances came to a screeching halt in late February 2020. But for two dates this summer in the United Kingdom, the choir hasn’t toured since.

But the singers never lost faith. And that, rewarded, will soon be on display – Oct. 14 in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater at Saint John’s University. It’s the first of a dozen events on the 2022-23 Fine Arts Performance series.

Significantly, the show is titled “Hope, It’s Been a Long Time Coming,” and Bongani Ncube, a manager and singer for the choir, said that’s an apt description of what the group has been through and also what it’s trying to convey.

“Giving up is not an option,” said Ncube, also a bass player and dancer, who has been involved with the choir since 2008. “Failure, loss and pain may be part of our lives but so is joy, peace and happiness – and, of course, hope. It’s when we have hope that we actually regain our strength to push forward no matter the hardships.”

He spoke just before the choir embarked on the first of two separate simultaneous 2022 tours. One will range all over the U.S. and Canada, while the other plays the UK and Europe. Prior to this fall, the group hadn’t sung in America since December 2018, and the last time the singers performed in Minnesota was March 13-14, 2014, in the Benedicta Arts Center at the College of Saint Benedict.

“COVID-19 was declared as one of the most severe pandemics the world has ever seen,” Ncube said. “Very little was known about the virus while lives were lost in large numbers here in South Africa and around the world. Hope was our stronghold. We held on tight to our faith in God and we kept the hope that life as we know it will be normal again. Now we are back to touring the world. This time, we are sharing our story of how hope has kept us alive, and we thank God in all.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir, three-time Grammy winners from South Africa, will appear Oct. 14 in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater at Saint John’s University. They have collaborated with dozens of artists including Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2.

Show will feature songs related to 2019 Grammy-winning album “Freedom”

The group derives its name and hails from South West Township, a town outside Johannesburg, South Africa. Their show will feature a strong influence from their latest album “Freedom,” which won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 2019. It includes songs that commemorate South Africa’s Freedom Movement, and the tour also will highlight the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the parallels between the two.

“There is a lot in common between the struggle for freedom in South Africa and the fight for civil rights in the U.S.,” said Ncube, one of 25 singers on the North American tour. “Our freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King shared many sentiments as far as the struggle for liberation and unification of the people of diverse culture and ethnicity. Their basic ideals were to bridge the economic gaps between black and white in both countries. The idea was to manage the inequalities in the most respectable ways possible. Humanity was the key word.

“Many of the ordinary people being repressed in both countries had no other means of expressing themselves except through their song. Music is very powerful for heart-felt expression and a peaceful form of opposition.”

A group of 25 singers will travel on the 2022 North American tour for the Soweto Gospel Choir, which has not toured the U.S. since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Set list includes American soul classics

In “Hope,” the singers will perform a set list that includes nearly a dozen traditional South African songs and almost as many that originated in the U.S., including “Respect,” written by Ottis Redding and recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1967, “What’s going on?” from Marvin Gaye in 1971, and “I’ll Take You There,” released by The Staple Singers in 1972. In addition to Redding and Franklin, the show includes homage to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield.

“They seem to have always been able to convey controversial messages through their music, talent and creativity,” Ncube said. “They made it a house activity to tell their stories as they are. That is what we are doing as Soweto Gospel Choir. Every chance to be on stage is an opportunity to tell our story as it is.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir formed in 2002, when its first album “Voices of Heaven” hit No. 1 on the Billboard World Music Chart. In 2007, the singers won a Grammy for best traditional world music with their second CD, “Blessed.” They won a second Grammy for their third album, “African Spirit.” They also won an Emmy for a promotional campaign with the 2010 World Cup, were nominated for an Oscar for the song “Down to Earth” from the 2009 movie Wall-E and have been associated with three other Grammy-winning performances – two by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and another by Peter Gabriel.

As the Soweto Gospel Choir approaches its third decade, some of the names and faces have changed but its core mission remains the same: spreading joy.

“Evolution is a necessary process for ensuring survival,” Ncube said. “We have had to grow as the music industry continued to change. We had to learn to collaborate with giants to grow to their height – people like Bono of U2, Ben Harper, our African brother Wizkid, Burna Boy, our multi-Grammy winner India friend Ricky Kej and many other artists of great talent. This has added more diversity to our craft and therefore increased our staying power in this tough industry.”

And they couldn’t have done it without hope.

Tickets available for $8 to CSB and SJU students

Tickets to the Oct. 14 performance are available for as little as $8 to CSB and SJU students. Regular tickets cost $42, $39 for seniors, $35 for faculty and staff, and $15 for youth. For more information, call the box office at the Benedicta Arts Center at 320-363-5777 or order online at www.csbsju.edu/expect.

Members of Soweto Gospel Choir also will lead an Intro to Gospel workshop at 3 p.m. Oct. 14 in Quad 264 at Saint John’s University. There are a limited number of spaces available for students and the public. If interested, please contact Leslie Hanlon at [email protected].

This performance and appearance is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

NOTE: The Oct. 29 performance of Anne of Green Gables by Ballet Jorgen, scheduled for Escher Auditorium at CSB, has been canceled. The Canadian dance company had to cancel its current American tour because of visa issues traveling between the two countries.

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The Soweto Gospel Choir is from South West Township, a town outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The singers’ Oct. 14 show at SJU is called “Hope, It’s Been a Long Time Coming,” and will feature music from their latest album “Freedom,” which won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 2019.