Soweto Gospel Choir is a wonderful performance. It's joyful, vibrant and exciting. There are sensational voices, colourful dancers and frenetic drummers. The cast will leave all audience members with a skip in their step and a song in their heart.
Right, review done.
Hope you enjoyed it.
In all seriousness though, to truly appreciate the troupe's show, I'm required to give you a brief history lesson.
For those attendees who don't hail from South Africa (I was born in Cape Town before emigrating here), Soweto refers to a township on the south-western fringes of Johannesburg, the country's largest metropolis: literally South Western Township. It's a massive shantytown - think humble shacks made from whatever material is available, all sprawled together at random - of almost a million predominantly black inhabitants. Recognising the distinction between these tribal cultures is essential to understanding modern South Africa; they have 11 official languages that are mostly African, with the exception of Afrikaans and English. A nice touch from the beginning of the show was being greeted in all of them.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning 'separated' — the infamous South African government's policy of segregation that existed right up until the end of the 1980's, and the greatest source of national shame to any white South African with a flicker of humanity. This is significant to the show because many of these songs were the only recourse of protest open to black Africans that wouldn't see them jailed, beaten, shot or simply 'disappeared'. One of those performed celebrates Oliver Tambo, a fellow black rights activist of then-protester and eventual-president, Nelson Mandela.
These songs were generally sung by congregations of the Zion Christian Church, an African sect of Christianity founded in 1924 by Engenas Lekganyane. It's now the largest African-founded religion in South Africa, with nearly five million members as of last estimation. The astounding thing about its evolution from Christian missionary origins is how Africans have taken a tool of colonial cultural oppression and enforced assimilation and turned it into a place of pride and open dissent. And that these songs are so damn happy is even more admirable; Africans were enslaved, murdered and openly oppressed by every shit of an uninvited colonial invader for nigh on four hundred years, but rather than sink into despondency they defiantly raised their voices (not dissimilar to gospel music in the American South, or Indigenous Australian songs here).
Look, you can enjoy the Soweto Gospel Choir just as much without knowing all this, it's also just a great world music concert. That said, understanding the cultural origins and motivations of the performers can only increase your admiration for their powerful and uplifting songs.