Feature

Soweto Gospel Choir talk juggling family, touring the world and winning an impressive three Grammy Awards, ahead of their opening slot for Ben Harper

Soweto Gospel Choir have been doing the most to represent South African culture to an international audience through music.

The super-group was formed in 2002 and they’ve been going and growing ever since. Their multi-lingual performance combines powerful vocals, richly-layered harmonies and rhythms like only Africa can, and strong choreography.

I saw them for the first time at the 20th Anniversary of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and I was knocked clean off my feet! I grew up in church so I know gospel, but there’s a difference between hymns and African choir. A massive difference. And Soweto Gospel Choir have won three Grammy Awards for it.

I had my phone on loudspeaker, nervously waiting for Gugu Mbongwa, member and spokesperson for the Choir, to answer the phone. “Just hold on, let me go somewhere quiet so we can chat,” she warmly greeted me. The line was bad, but there was much excitement in her voice. She’d just popped out of a rehearsal to have a chat with me. What a babe!

Gugu joined the choir four years after inception and she’s keen to talk about the audition process saying, “Yoh! It was scary! Singing in front of people you don’t know. There was so much talent that already existed in the group and you have no idea who they’re measuring you against.”

She pre-empts my next question: “And here’s the thing, you have to dance. And then you still don’t know, ‘cause you have to wait for a call back. You’re so nervous.”

I thank her for their Jazz Fest performance and it makes her giggle. I add that taking pictures of the Choir while fighting the urge to dance was near impossible and she giggles more, uncontrollably this time. She says she’d love for me to show her some pics, “even if they’re blurry.”

I have to know how they manage to take such a massive group on the road? Surely a logistical nightmare? She muses on how difficult it was initially commenting, “It was very hard for me. It was the first time traveling with a big group and leaving my family. My son had just started grade 3 and I had to leave him at a boarding college to figure out how to live by himself and grow.”

She bought him a cellphone, which he lost to an over-enthusiastic farewell hug. “That made communication impossible,” she says, and my heart breaks. “He turned 20 yesterday,” she says and I can hear her smiling over the phone. This is a story that I’m much happier about.

“Sacrifices are what survival is about, in the music industry and in life,” she says. Here’s a confident woman, someone part of something so big, but with her feet planted firmly on the ground.

Here is a super-group who use their super powers for good. When they perform overseas, they raise funds after each performance through collection. Most of what they collect goes to Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, their adopted charity that helps orphans in their surrounding townships. “But that’s not the only charity we are involved with,” Gugu adds. “There is one [organization] that helps old age people, another one that helps cancer patients, refugees. We really wish we could do so much more.”

I ask about their Grammy Awards, of which they have three and about who gets to keep them. She laughs and says that they’re spread out, one in their office in Soweto, one at their late co-founders house, and the other on its way to South African shores. She confirms my suspicions that they are every bit as heavy as they look, which we laugh about.

I ask where the band hasn’t and really wants to play, a question she had surprisingly never been asked before. “I really have to think about that. We’ve been to the Caribbean, we’ve been to Canada, we’ve had a taste of any place you can think of,” she pauses, ‘but not Mozambique. I would love to go there with the Choir. Even by myself.”

I tell her about my experiences at STRAB Festival and before her and I can devise a plot for making 2020’s line-up, her manager interrupts with an unfortunate – “Time’s up!”

Quickly I joke about a potential coffee date while they’re in Cape Town for their Ben Harper Tour performance. She sounds keen and I’m taking her up on it.

For those of you who won’t be going on a coffee date with the wonderful Ms Gugu Mbongwa, you can catch Soweto Gospel Choir on the 4th of June as they blow the roof off Capetown’s Grandwest Arena, opening for Ben Harper. 

Get your tickets here. Gugu promises me that this one’s gonna be “beautiful and special”.

All photos courtesy of Chad Camarinha.