Simultaneously familiar and other-worldly, the Soweto Gospel Choir is the right group performing at the right time. While so much of our fragile planet is being torn apart by social and political divisiveness, this glorious 26-member choir is on a quest to lift our spirits through the amazing-yet-simple joy of singing.
Formed five years ago in Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, this energizing vocal ensemble offers traditional South African pop, Western gospel and other popular inspirationals, ranging from a capella vocals (sung in Zulu, Sotho and English), full arrangements and spirited percussive tracks. The group's album, Blessed, brought the group some notoriety, winning the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album. This particular style of choral music focuses on the interplay of a raw-voiced soloist and the choir's splendid responses. The choir's traditional South African songs don't just harmonize around the lead vocalist; the group sings using well-timed, progressive chords that push the melody and rhythm forward.
In addition to performing the three-chord township pop called mbaqanga and a bit of the local hip-hop called kwaito, the Soweto Gospel Choir branches into rock and reggae territory with exquisite renditions of U2's "One," Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting in Limbo" and some Bob Dylan tunes, including "Forever Young" and the more obscure "I'll Remember You." Experiencing this live program under the direction of choirmaster David Mulovhedzi is not just an aural delight, though. The athletic dance numbers and spectacular, multicolored traditional garb present a visual feast as well.
The Soweto Gospel Choir experience is really all about enduring faith and celebrating freedom. And beyond their positive message and spirituals, the touring group is giving something back by raising funds for young children who are orphaned by AIDS. If you can't get swept up in this group's enthusiasm, I suggest you check your pulse.
Soweto Gospel Choir at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646; www.thebarclay.org. Sat., 8 p.m. $35-$40. All ages.
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