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November 13, 2008

"Mama Africa" and the Soweto Gospel Choir

Soweto1
The Soweto Gospel Choir raises the roof.
Photo: Oliver Neubert

by John Oseid

The world lost a monumental figure last week when legendary South African singer and anti-Apartheid hero Miriam Makeba passed away on stage in Italy. How fitting, it was reported, that she was singing her signature exile hit "Pata Pata." Harry Belafonte recounted on NPR just how remarkable a personage the 76-year-old "Mama Africa" was. Perhaps few people besides Nelson Mandela could claim the hearts of the entire continent as she did.

Thoughts of Ms. Makeba inspired me to check out a DVD I had recently stumbled across at Virgin Records. The 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir's live concert in Johannesburg's Nelson Mandela Theatre turned out to be so compelling that I found myself watching it three mornings in a row while I sipped my coffee. The office was just going to have to wait.

The choir was formed five years ago under the patronage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has already won two Grammys. On the live DVD, they perform 18 songs (the accompanying CD has 22), from traditional hymns to Bob Marley's "One Love" and Bob Dylan's "I'll Remember You." There's so much talent in the house, even the crowd whistles in rhythm.

I must have watched two thrilling numbers featuring Congolese zoukous guitar rhythms a half-dozen times. On "Ahuna Ya Tswanang Le Jesu," singers dance, the choir trills, and two members perform a sort of rap. "Woza Moyam" is filled with drumming and dancing as well, then it morphs into the call-and-response "canteen" song in which a group of male performers make music with spoons, plates, and glasses. The high-kick moves on "Sisazoyivuma Le Ngoma" remind me of West African dance and suggests the choir absorbs from all over the continent. And I'm sure the members all have "Mama Africa" in their thoughts today.

More music:
* I can only imagine how stunning the Soweto Gospel Choir sounds live. Good news, the choir is currently touring the States through the Christmas season. Here's the schedule.
* Check out the choir's wide-ranging label Shanachie, which features everything from jazz and folk to Irish Celtic and reggae.
* New York Times music critic Jon Pareles pays tribute to Miriam Makeba and puts her legacy in perspective.
* Pick up Makeba's collected hits album, Mama Africa.
* The Indepent reported that this vintage clip of Makeba performing her beautiful world-wide hit "Pata Pata" was YouTube's most watched video on the day of her death.

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