Songs of the struggle and music steeped in South Africa’s apartheid past. The story of how the Soweto Gospel Choir captivated the world
Three Grammys in 12 years. And more global awards in their 17 years of existence.
In February this year, at the 61st annual Grammy awards in Los Angeles, South Africa’s child and Africa’s pride, the Soweto Gospel Choir (SGC) walked up to the stage to a rousing ovation.
They had won the Best World Music Album for Freedom. More than an album dedicated to Nelson Mandela, that word stood for triumph, it stood for the freedom where it all started – Soweto.
Since its inception, the gospel choir, hailing from South Africa’s biggest township, Soweto (short for South West Townships), has been on more international stages than they can keep count of.
Its founders, Australian promoter Beverly Bryer and the late David Mulovhedzi, created something so monumental that the world had to sit up and listen. Bryer was born in South Africa, and lived and worked in the Australian music scene for a few years before moving back to South Africa in 1995.
During her stint in Australia, she connected with a number of music promoters who took talent from all over the world to Down Under.
Her love was always music but pop and rock rather than African gospel.
In 2001, Bryer received a call from one of the promoters she had met in Australia asking if there were any interesting South African artists he could showcase in Australia. She suggested Umoja, a South African theater production. Bryer knew the producer and the production was a huge global success.
After watching the cast on stage, the promoter was blown away and backed the production all the way to Australia.
In 2002, Bryer received another call saying the gospel aspect of Umoja was extremely popular and everyone loved it.
“I was asked to form a choir with Mulovhedzi and we had about three months to form one because they didn’t want an existing choir but a new one. I asked Mulovhedzi to bring his choir director expertise and I learned very quickly about gospel music,” she recalls.
That was the birth of the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“The name was a very important decision and it came quite naturally because most of the members were from Soweto, so that was giving the artists their location.
“We thought a lot of the languages the choir is going to be singing in, people around the world were not going to know or understand, but the only thing they knew was Soweto, Nelson Mandela and the struggle. So, we marked it with something that people knew, the name,” Bryer says.
Through word-of-mouth, within the three months given to them, they had auditions, and went into studio and recorded their first album, Voices From Heaven, which shot up to number one on the Billboards World Music Chart within three weeks of release in 2002. Three months after that, the choir went on to tour Australia.
The six-week tour sold out and the milestones have not stopped since.
Bryer recalls promoters coming out for a show and one saying to the choir that they had something special.
“We said to her that ‘we don’t know how it’s going to go, so if you want to take a chance with us, sure. If it doesn’t work, everyone goes home’.”
Bryer was advised the Edinburgh International Festival was where musicians cut their teeth and that was where promoters from around the world looked for talent.
There were thousands of acts and the SGC were ultimately among the most popular at the festival, and that’s when other international promoters wanted to work with them.
Edinburgh got the ball rolling.
At the end of 2003, the choir was presented with a big local event in the form of the first 46664 concert; an AIDS benefit concert in honor of the late South Africa president Nelson Mandela.
That concert still gives Mandlenkosi Modawu the jitters when he thinks of its scale and magnitude. One of the older members in the choir, Modawu is the bass singer and drummer from Witbank, Mpumalanga, but moved to Mofolo, Soweto, shortly after joining the choir. He has been with the choir for over 15 years now.
“The drummer prior to me was troublesome, so it was easier for me to get into the choir after my auditions; fortunately, I am also a singer and that was a bonus for me,” he says.
He speaks of the Edinburgh International Festival as though the performance was yesterday and keeps reiterating that among the 2,000 acts, they were the best.
In the ocean of experiences, Modawu has moments he will always treasure.
“I think our break came after Scotland (Edinburgh International Festival), and when I think about the 46664 concert in 2003, I get shivers even today, mainly because we were considered one of the smallest acts in that concert but we ended up backing a whole lot of artists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, U2 and other big names,” he says.
In 2007, SGC won their first Grammy.
South African gospel was recognized globally and their mantel was filling up.
“The second Grammy came as a surprise, I think it’s because of the collaborations we did with big name artists around the world. They got us recognized in the global music fraternity.
“While working on the album that got us our third Grammy, we drew from the experiences we had from the struggle, stories told by our parents during apartheid and those songs really touched the world because of the emotions, and it moved people,” Modawu says.
Sadly, Mulovhedzi could not share the excitement of their third Grammy.
“His passing was devastating because he was our founding father. It shocked us, but we had to accept and keep the legacy. One of his sons is the choir manager now,” says Modawu.
“The first Grammy just came out of nowhere. It started with someone contacting us and asking what we think of this idea, we carried the idea and, sadly, in 2009, he (Mulovhedzi) passed.”
And now 17 years later, they are the most successful choir in the world.
“I have watched my children grow up for 17 years, from the start, especially those coming from disadvantaged communities, very few had ever been on a plane.
“We had tried getting people who had never sung professionally before and we never thought they would be on stage with Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder or John Legend and through the years, artists wanted to collaborate with the choir.
“So, for them, it would be coming from Soweto and now on the stage in New York City with Aretha Franklin or recording with Peter Gabriel or doing shows with Johnny Clegg. To this day, it is an unreality for all of us.”
Bryers still remembers Mulovhedzi as the most important man she had ever met in her dealings.
“He was absolutely super-special,” she says, and that he was the kindest gentleman with an absolute love for music and a great knowledge of gospel.
He helped her with the knowledge of gospel and working with him was the most enriching experience, she adds.
“Regarding our latest Grammy, the album called Freedom was recorded in 2018. One group toured Europe and the other one did America. It was recorded for that tour, which was called Songs of the Free to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary. So, it was concentrating on freedom songs, and songs that come from the struggle, with a little bit of gospel in between…
“It was special because it’s an album that included their (choir members’) history; it was an extra special feel for them.”
Bryer recalls previous accolades with fondness.
“The first Grammy had more attention because it came out of nowhere. I remember in 2007 looking at my email that we were nominated for a Grammy. It was special and we were there with David [Mulovhedzi].
“The second one was like, ‘been there, done that’. The third one is as important as the first because of the history, it’s more personal and dedicated to Madiba, and it also shows that even after 17 years, the Soweto Gospel Choir is on top of the music game.”
At the beginning of their journey in 2002, the choir started with 24 members, but because of international travel, they had to form a second choir about 18 months later to stay and perform locally.
Last year, the choir formed a third group because both groups were traveling; now the choir has grown to 50 members.
Alto singer Cecelia Manyama from Diepkloof, Soweto, joined the group in 2016. She was spotted by Bryer at a charity event playing the violin for a classical group. She is one of the newer members.
“I met Beverly in the line to the loo. She had just heard me singing on stage and she called me aside and introduced herself and invited me for auditions that took place two weeks later. I was excited and couldn’t sleep, the two weeks felt like two years,” Manyama remembers.
A week after the auditions, she received a message with details of where the next rehearsals would be. She was in disbelief and told everyone.
This was a choir that she admired and a choir she used to watch on television.
“I was told to lead a song I did at the charity event; I was terrified. I remember the late Portia Skosana when I froze, and she came next to me and sung the lead and let me continue.
“When I started singing, I immediately felt the connection and we were in sync and it didn’t feel new. With just that rehearsal, I was blown away,” she recalls.
Three months later, it was her first concert and performance in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, for the Clap N Tap concert with the choir.
“I will never forget that experience, I led with Avulekile Amasango (The Gates Have Opened). That was the first song I was given. I then felt there is no stranger there in the choir,” she says, taking a deep breath.
“Being with a Grammy award-winning choir and performing with them for the first time, you have fear and excitement at the same time. We are in sync and I realized I was not alone.
“The backing behind me was speaking in volumes, it drove me, it pushed me and from that day onwards, I never looked back and wanted to learn more. It was an amazing experience.”
For each new member who joins the group, the awards reawaken something within.
“I remember with my first Grammy with the group, we went to the airport to get it. I had never held a Grammy in my hand, but with Soweto Gospel Choir, I held it,” laughs Manyama.
“It was amazing. At first, I didn’t understand the kind of impact it has on the nation but now I realize this is huge; being called everywhere to perform, and being in the same room with the president holding the Grammy. That Grammy is heavy and after taking a picture with it, you just want to pass it on or put it down.”
Although many have come and gone over the years, the choir have prioritized succession, as they make it a point to gradually hand over management to the younger generation, who no doubt have big shoes to fill – and the legacy of three very heavy gramophone trophies to uphold.
Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
The South African actor and musician was impressed with the city’s architecture, food and work ethic.
South African actor and musician Anga Makubalo, known by his stage name NaakMusiQ, calls the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai a luxury destination.
NaakMusiQ, who hails from Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, shot to fame after appearing in the award-winning South African soap opera Generations and has since been in a number of television shows.
He has also had a chart-topping music hit, Ntombi ft Bucie.
NaakMusiQ’s first trip to Dubai, known as the melting pot of the Middle East, was last year on an Emirates flight when he traveled Business Class. The fashion-lover admits to being a light packer, although there are some items he would never travel without, such as cologne, a pair of sneakers, and his music.
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“I also carry my scripts all the time. Because of the long flights, I can get tired of watching a movie, I can get tired of listening to music, so the next best thing is to get into my script and get a head start.”
He has been to Dubai before, but only transiting the airport connecting to another flight, so this was his first official trip into the glistening city.
“Dubai is everything that people say it is,” he says. “We went to the mall. It was crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it before. [The Dubai Mall] has a full-on aquarium inside. In the middle of the center, there’s like this huge fish tank. It’s crazy! That was probably the highlight of my visit.”
The actor was also intrigued by the city’s architecture and skyscrapers.
“I’m actually very huge on architecture. It’s actually something I wanted to study. Their engineering is absolutely insane. The way they’ve built this place and the designs – it’s luxury, one after the other. We drove for hours admiring the architecture because I’m such a nerd when it comes to that. I love it.”
Dubai has a sizeable African expatriate community, and no dearth of African culture. As a musician, NaaqMusiQ had been invited to the city.
“Africans that have immigrated to Dubai request their favorite African artist to come over so that they’re still connected to Africa and home. The nice thing about that is, as much as it is our people that have invited us there to perform, they have influenced people from there [Dubai] and other parts of the country [UAE] to come and listen to our music.
“Because they’ve become residents there, they have friendships where they introduce African music to the people of Dubai. So when we went there, there were quite a lot of people, even though some couldn’t sing along, there were a lot of people who went crazy when my song [Ntombi] played.”
During his time there, NaakMusiQ was also taken to restaurants serving African food. This came as somewhat of a surprise for the actor that the Arab city boasted a range of eateries specializing in African cuisine.
“We had a lot of Kenyan food that I hadn’t tasted before, which was really nice. They’ve got Tanzanian food, they’ve got South African food, Zambian food; it’s just a whole African experience there. And they do well actually.”
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While NaakMusiQ didn’t interact with the natives of Dubai, he did get a sense of what they are like. The hustle and bustle of the city left him greatly motivated.
“Everyone in Dubai is there to work. Everyone is there to hustle. People think that Dubai is this big, fun place, which it can be, but even people from there aren’t out partying every night. It’s people from the countries that are visiting that are out partying. Everyone else is really working. Some people are so hectic when it comes to business and money that they don’t have a life outside of their work.
“When they do have nights off, they choose to be at home or to put in extra hours working. It just made me want to work harder. That is the impact… Everyone there wants to do better. The standards there are incredibly high. What we would consider as good here is probably entry-level there,” says the hit-maker who now plans to return to Dubai wealthier and with more cash to splurge.
Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms
The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.
Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.
The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.
Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.
There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.
The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.
“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.
His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.
Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.
“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”
Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea.
I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.
In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.
The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.
“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.
Marvel Money: How Six Avengers Made $340 Million Last Year
Since its premiere in April, Avengers: Endgame has been sending shockwaves across the Marvel multiverse, with a worldwide gross of $2.77 billion and counting after the movie’s return to theaters last month. With its domestic gross sitting at $848 million, Endgame is the second-highest-grossing film ever both in the U.S. and overseas.
That means a payday not just for Marvel Studios but also for the Avengers themselves, who have negotiated their way to superpowered deals. Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-earning entertainers this year features six Endgame heroes, from Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor) at No. 24 overall with $76.4 million (not all of his earnings were from Avengers) to Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) at No. 83 with $41 million. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Chris Evans (Captain America) also assembled and made the cut. Together, the team earned $340 million.
“Celebrities such as Downey and Johansson currently have extreme leverage to demand enormous compensation packages from studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars in making tent-pole films, such as The Avengers series,” says entertainment lawyer David Chidekel of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.
Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president, seems to agree: “We started saying that the character is the marquee name, and I think that’s still true, but I think we’ve been very lucky and thankful that the actors that imbibe these characters have now become them,” he told Forbes of the highly compensated group in 2017.
Marvel signs actors to multi-movie deals that also include promotional commitments. These deals often start off in the seven figures, which helps explain why newer superheroes like Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) and Tom Holland (the latest Spider-Man) didn’t make the Celeb 100 cut. But as actors stay with the MCU, their salaries increase. Veteran Marvel stars can command an upfront salary as high as $20 million (Downey). Others top heroes can earn in the neighborhood of $15 million (Hemsworth, Johansson, Evans), while second-tier characters make about $8 million (Rudd).
But the real money comes in later. All of this year’s listees proved so valuable to Marvel that they were able to negotiate for a piece of the profit—also known as contingent compensation—on both the ensemble Avengers films and their individual superhero films.
“A studio’s incentive to grant contingent compensation to various actors, writers, directors and other key personnel is simple. Movie studios depend upon tent-pole films to support their financial performance,” says Chidekel.
These points pay off. Avengers: Endgame, for example, has made about $700 million in profit from its box office run so far. For Downey, who has around 8% in back-end points, that translates to about $55 million, for a grand total of $75 million for the one film.
Even smaller characters like Cooper can command about 1% of the back end, which would translate to $7 million for Endgame. For their star vehicles, these actors can negotiate an even bigger cut of the profit.
“The percent of budget cost have certainly skewed heavy, particularly on the Avengers movies, to cast now, whereas maybe in the early ones it was more visual effects or below the line,” Feige said in 2017. “But that’s okay because [the actors] are the best effects.”
These sky-high paychecks have proved to be a worthwhile investment for the studio. With a built-in audience of comic book fans, scripts that are both funny and socially aware, and a powerful marketing strategy, MCU films have grossed over $22 billion since 2008. These actors continually return many times their salaries in box-office dollars. For instance, while Downey earned that eye-popping $75 million from Endgame, the film grossed $36.90 at the box office for every dollar he was paid. Those on the lower end of the earnings spectrum, like Rudd, produced over $100 at the box office for every dollar they were paid.
“Certainly the strange alchemy of seeing characters you’ve never seen before teamed up together on screen, if they were different versions of those characters, it wouldn’t be as fun,” Feige said. “It’s expensive but well worth it.”
We think Nick Fury would agree.
-Madeline Berg; Forbes Staff
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