Songs of the struggle and music steeped in South Africa’s apartheid past. The story of how the Soweto Gospel Choir captivated the world
By Motlabana Monnakgotla
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.
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.