African Grace: Soweto Gospel Choir March 23

Edison Ovations Series welcomes return of acclaimed African ensemble

The internationally acclaimed Soweto Gospel Choir will return to Washington University with a new program, titled African Grace, March 23 as part of the Edison Ovations Series. Hires photos available upon request.

A lone tenor takes the stage. Her voice is hushed and plaintive over a pair of drums but quickly grows full and strong as she’s joined by a score of fellow singers.The song is Jesu Ngowethu, a traditional Zulu spiritual, and it marks the beginning of African Grace, the new program by Soweto Gospel Choir. Drawn from many of South Africa’s finest choirs, this Grammy Award-winning “super group” has toured throughout the world, earning international acclaim for its joyful mix of African rythms and Western-style harmonies.

Later this month, Soweto Gospel Choir will return to St. Louis as part of the Edison Ovations Series at Washington University.

The special one-night-only performance will begin at 8 p.m. Friday, March 23, in the university’s 560 Music Center. Tickets are $35, or $30 seniors, $25 for Washington University faculty and staff and $20 for students and children.

Tickets are available at the Edison Box Office and through all MetroTix outlets. The 560 Music Center is located in the Delmar Loop at 560 Trinity Ave.

For more information, call (314) 935-6543, e-mail or visit

African Gospel

Before the arrival of Western religions, traditional African music was largely rooted in song and percussion. Music ranging from praise songs to the rites of the traditional healer — secular music being largely nonexistent — typically followed a call-and-response form, with each tribal group boasting its own distinctive style.

But as Christian missionaries arrived in Africa in the early 19th century, mission schools became a major source of education, including musical training. Today, gospel music permeates the fabric of southern Africa. The region is home to more than 5,000 independent Christian churches, many of which hold services in the open air.

Gospel Choir with U2

Soweto Gospel Choir

Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in Novemer 2002. David Mulovhedzi, now music director and choirmaster, and executive producer Beverly Byer, hosted auditions for the very best singers in Mulovhedzi’s own Holy Jerusalem Choir, various Soweto churches and the general public.

The choir’s first album, Voices from Heaven, was recorded the following month and, within three weeks of its U.S. release, reached the top of Billboard’s World Music Chart. They soon collected a series of awards, including the 2003 American Gospel Music Award for Best Choir of the Year and Australia’s prestigious Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music Concert.

Subsequent albums woud include Blessed and African Spirit, which won the 2007 and 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Traditional World Music, and Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, which was nominated for a 2009 Grammy for Best Conteporary World Music. In 2010 the choir received its fourth Grammy nomination for Grace.

In addition, Soweto Gospel Choir has performed and recorded with a who’s-who of Western artists, ranging from Robert Plant and Diana Ross to Josh Groban and U2. In 2009, the song Down to Earth, which they recorded with Peter Gabriel for the film Wall-E, won a Grammy for Best Movie Song. Later that year, the choir became the first South African artist to perform at the Academy Awards, singing Down to Earth with John Legend.

Today, Soweto Gospel Choir features more than 50 performers drawn from across South Africa, including 24 singers as well as live dancers, musicians and drummers. The group sings in eight languages, though most of its recordings are in English, Zulu or Sotho. Its repertoire spans popular songs, African Gospel, folk anthems and traditional spirituals.

Billboard notes that, “These absolutely thrilling singers need nothing but their voices to make dazzling music,” while The New York Times calls Soweto Gospel Choir “Meticulous and unstoppable …spirited and spectacular.”

The Sunday Herald of Scotland adds that “you don’t have to be a believer to be inspired.”

Community Outreach

In addition to performing, Soweto Gospel Choir works to support the local communities from which its members are drawn. In August 2003, the choir established its own charity foundation, Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani (meaning “to arise, do something!”), which raises funds for AIDS orphans.

In November 2003, the group shared the stage with Bono, Peter Gabriel, the Eurythmics and others at Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Concert in Cape Town. That event helped launch a worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the devastating impact of AIDS in Africa.

Edison Theatre

Founded in 1973, the Edison Ovations Series serves both Washington University and the St. Louis community by providing the highest caliber national and international artists in music, dance and theater, performing new works as well as innovative interpretations of classical material not otherwise seen in St. Louis.

Edison programs are made possible with support from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis; and private contributors. The Ovations season is supported by The Mid-America Arts Alliance with generous underwriting by the National Endowment for the Arts and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.