eing a member of the Soweto Gospel Choir has brought singer-guitarist Kevin Williams more closely in touch with the cultural diversity of his homeland than he was as a boy growing up in the South African port city of Durban under his country’s racist apartheid regime. Together only eight years, the 26-member, two-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble counts Oprah Winfrey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu among its fans. The singers now spend nine to ten months a year performing outside South Africa, blending their voices in glorious, multi-layered harmonies as they serve up religious and traditional South African selections — sung in six of the country’s 11 official languages, mostly in Zulu, Sotho and English — along with inspirational pop songs such as Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubles Water.”
“We spend so much time together on the road that we’ve created a bond like a family,” Williams, 29, says by phone following a concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. “We learn the different cultures and languages from each other. We don’t just learn how to speak them, but we also learn how to understand them.”
Originally formed at Holy Jerusalem Church, a Pentecostal congregation in the overwhelmingly black Soweto district of Johannesburg, the choir now includes vocalists from churches of several different Christian denominations from throughout South Africa. “Everybody goes to church,” Williams says. “We don’t have non-believers.”
The choir has specific criteria for choosing non-gospel numbers to include in its repertoire. “They’re songs that speak to the soul — songs that have a message that can relate to where people come from and to where people are at right now,” Williams explains. “It’s also the lyrics that bring a message across — a message of hope, a message of peace and a message of faith.”
South Africa has changed “drastically” for the better since the end of apartheid in 1994, according to Williams. “Change only means growth,” he says. “Where we come from is not who we are. As a nation, people are so excited that the past doesn’t have an effect on us.”
The choir solicits contributions while on tour for Nkosi’s Haven, a Soweto residential care facility for orphans, as well as children and their mothers, infected with HIV/AIDS. When they are back home in South Africa, choir members personally distribute food and clothing to residents. “We show them that they are not alone,” Williams says.
Concerts are divided into two segments: one in which the choir performs either a cappella or with the accompaniment of two djembe drummers, the other with support by guitarist Williams, a keyboardist, bassist and drummer. Currently on a three-month tour of the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean in support of “Grace,” their fourth CD for the Shanachie label, the singers will stop in Oakland on Saturday, March 27, for an 8 p.m. show at the Paramount Theatre.
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