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Soweto Gospel Choir: Three Heavy Grammys And A World Singing Their Praise

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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.

READ MORE | African Music Platforms Soar As Spotify And Apple Snooze

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.

READ MORE | Remembering Hugh Masekela: the horn player with a shrewd ear for music of the day

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. 

Arts

The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown

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Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.

During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.

“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.

He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.

He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.

“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”

Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.

“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.

During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.

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‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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