You'd expect that winning two Grammies would mean you could give up the day job. But when I meet the Soweto Gospel Choir's co-founder, David Mulovhedzi, at his home outside Johannesburg two weeks after the choir won Best Traditional World Music Album for the second year running he apologizes for rushing me. "I have to get back to work," he explains. Work, it turns out, is a job as a finance clerk in a cement wholesale business. "There are 10 people in my family," says Mulovhedzi, 60. "If I don't go to work, they'll starve."
For everyone in the Soweto Gospel Choir, success and struggle have been inseparable. In 2002, a concert promoter asked Johannesburg-based events producer Beverly Bryer to put together a South African choir to fill in for a Welsh one that had pulled out of a tour of Australia and New Zealand. She called Mulovhedzi, who ran a choir she often booked. Within a month, they auditioned hundreds of singers from Soweto, picked 32 and recorded an album to accompany the tour. It topped the Billboard world-music chart in a matter of days. Then came sold-out tours of the U.S., Europe and Asia; Grammies for their next two albums, Blessed and African Spirit; concerts and recordings with stars like Bono and Robert Plant; and private shows for Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. So great was the demand that the choir has taken on 20 more singers and split into two, enabling it to plan simultaneous tours of the U.S. and Europe for later this year.
The story of the Soweto Gospel Choir is not just one of musical excellence. It is also a tale of the reinvention of a township once known as a hotbed of rebellion, then as a cauldron of crime, and now emerging as the muscle that drives Africa's biggest economy. At the start of the 20th century, Soweto was a collection of shanty towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg where the British colonial authorities housed the black and colored laborers working the city's gold mines. The apartheid regime formalized this divide, allowing blacks and coloreds into the city by day but confining them to dormitory towns at night. Soweto became the focus of oppression. In 1976, police there opened fire on 10,000 students protesting a policy to enforce education in Afrikaans; 566 people died.
Under apartheid, large gatherings were forbidden. Church became the only place where blacks and coloreds could meet in numbers. Gospel music, with its themes of hope, strength and redemption, became their only legal form of protest and their only means of escape. "We sang to keep going," says Lucas Bok, the choir's musical director. "Singing was the only way to express yourself." That need spurred the creation of hundreds of gospel choirs in Soweto the massive talent pool from which Mulovhedzi drew his recruits.
Today, Soweto's population of an estimated 2 to 3 million is emerging as the bedrock of South Africa's new black middle class. Clapboard shanty towns are being replaced by neat rows of brick and tile bungalows. BMWs and Mercedes are a common sight. And last September saw the opening of a vast steel and glass mall. The choir's success reflects Soweto's new dawn. "Soweto is a place of change," says Bok, "and the choir walks hand in hand with Soweto."
But some of the hardships of the past endure. Running water and electricity remain an ambition for thousands. Unemployment is 40%. Crime and drug addiction still thrive, and AIDS has decimated the population. Bryer says several of the choir members are HIV positive; many others are the sole breadwinners for extended families that include several AIDS orphans. Even if it had the money to flaunt its success, the choir decided early on not to do so, but instead to channel its energy and fund-raising abilities toward community projects, particularly the choir's own AIDS orphan foundation, Vukani. "We couldn't lose touch with what's happening in Soweto, even if we wanted to," says Bok. "We've all lost people to crime or AIDS."
Soweto's difficulties still provide the choir's musical inspiration. Soprano Fikile Sidumo, 34, saw one uncle shot dead in the street when she was a teenager, and another uncle died of AIDS in November. Before joining the choir in 2003, she earned just $25 a month from singing and dancing at weddings not enough to support the three families living in her shack in the dirt-poor township of Alexandra, near Soweto. The choir, which pays members a day rate of $20 per rehearsal, seemed the answer to her prayers, until she collapsed during a performance and was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Today, out of hospital, solvent and dreaming of buying a house, she credits these experiences for the raw emotion in her extraordinary voice. "When I sing, people cry," says Sidumo. "I ask them, 'Why?' They say, 'I was thinking about hardship. I lost my husband. I lost my children.' Then they tell me that the music makes them feel their spirits healing. That's our magic."