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Blog // Sounds
March 24, 2007

Soweto Gospel Choir

There will always be a special place in my heart for African worship music, especially from Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. L and I met during a short term mission to Africa that took in a Baptist World Alliance youth conference in Harare (we have the word Jabulani, Zulu for rejoice, celebrate or happiness, inscribed […]

There will always be a special place in my heart for African worship music, especially from Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. L and I met during a short term mission to Africa that took in a Baptist World Alliance youth conference in Harare (we have the word Jabulani, Zulu for rejoice, celebrate or happiness, inscribed in our wedding bands).

During that trip I met a number of South African pastors, musicians and singers and spoke with them about faith and hope under Apartheid, the future after general elections and their understandings of worship. In the following weeks I had the chance to participate in churches in Zambia, sing along in people’s homes and visit schools. For me, it was a transformative experience, musically, spiritually and culturally.

So it was with massive anticipation that I booked our final set of Hong Kong Arts Festival tickets, for the performance of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

It’s not hard to see how the idea of a touring African Gospel choir could be an appealing commercial prospect. There is no shortage of real talent and desire in African churches. There is still a great deal of residual goodwill towards African music, especially amongst those old enough to remember the cross-over hits of the 80s and 90s. Many folks are easily entertained by exotic looking performers beating drums and wearing vaguely ethnic clothes. Finally, Gospel music benefits from both widespread resonance amongst the mainstream pop concert audience and ignorance and unfamiliarity with its varied traditions and genres.

From that mix the Soweto Gospel Choir has been created – and I say created intentionally, because unlike the choirs I heard in Africa, this is a commercial venture from the outset, not the organic outgrowth of a specific worshipping community.

It’s an export product – the Gospel equivalent of Irish themed pubs.

The performers were sincere and professional, but the arrangements were a straightjacket a lot of the time. Many of the cues, harmonies and ideas owed more to American gospel – occasionally southern, but mostly of the cheesy 80s variety. In fact, if American Idol ever did a Gospel show, it would probably sound like this; maybe it would sound better.

As we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong Festival performances, the show started late and the were numerous empty patches amongst the expensive seats. Of course, there were also plenty of verbally unrestrained ex-pats around us.

But at least the audience was warm and receptive, trying to clap along, applauding generously and even rising to their feet at the end. Maybe that was a totally over the top response to this plastic and fabricated show. But it did reflect a genuine desire to enjoy and appreciate the talents that was on display.

One would only hope that next time a similar production comes to Hong Kong, either African music or Gospel, it brings with it more quality, authenticity and power.

[tags] Soweto Gospel Choir, Hong Kong Arts Festival [/tags]

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