Celebrating its 10 years, the Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir brings its Divine Decade show to the Sony Centre on Friday. We spoke to Kevin Williams, tenor vocalist and lead guitarist for the jubilant, colourfully garbed 26-member group.
The name Soweto Gospel Choir is pretty self-explanatory. But if someone asked you to describe what you do, what would you say?
What we do is sing. How we do it is a whole other explanation. Our show was an idea that became a reality which you see today. It took us time to become united. It took experience, and it took exposure to other artists.
After Nelson Mandela died in December, the choir performed a flash mob version of Asimbonanga, a tribute song to Mr. Mandela by Johnny Clegg. But originally you had planned to sing James Brown’s I Feel Good. Is James Brown an inspiration?
Sure, we took a sound from him. We’ve also performed with groups like U2. We take sounds from different artists. It’s a collaboration of ideas. We do have songs and sounds that North American audiences may have heard before. As far as changing from the James Brown song after we learned of Mandela’s death, we simply switched to what was inspiring us at the moment.
It’s been said that Mr. Mandela was the choir’s No. 1 fan. Could he sing?
Definitely. When there was oppression and when Mandela was incarcerated, the prisoners were told not to speak to each other. But there was the opportunity to sing. It was their way of communicating. But, really, everybody can sing. The only thing is whether you keep in key and in tune.
One of the things which separates you from many other choirs is that you’re not only singing about faith, but about national pride as well. Is one more important than the other?
In South Africa, everything is important. We have 11 official languages. We try to gather all the beliefs, cultures, music and traditions. And our shows are not just about South African culture and music and African gospel. It’s American gospel and American soul music as well.
Does one require faith to fully enjoy one of your concerts?
Anybody can come. We cater to all beliefs. To every single person, whether a believer or a non-believer, we sing to the best of our abilities. For non-believers, we want them to know there is hope. We want everyone to leave feeling better than when they arrived.
How does it feel to have the power to uplift, as you do?
We are not God, but we give 100 per cent. So, what we are, are little gods on Earth that can make a small change in everybody’s life.