Hymns from the 26th parallel
Last Sunday afternoon, the Soweto Gospel Choir made Symphony Hall history — surely this is the first time that august venue has seen anyone perform a percussion arrangement on a dinner table with plates, knives, and forks. This bizarre and delightful theatrical interlude, called "Table Scene," lasted just a few minutes before the chorus returned to its normal program of spirituals sung in Zulu, Sotho, and English.
The Soweto Gospel Choir, which rose up out of one of Johannesburg's most notorious apartheid-created ghettos, has blossomed into a formidable world-music juggernaut in just a few years, winning two Grammys and sharing stages with the likes of Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel. The roughly 25 singers gyrating on stage cut a striking sight indeed, clad in beaded tunics, fringed skirts, and billowy turbans whose Day-Glo hues (the kind normally reserved for spandex shorts) could easily be seen from outer space. Every so often, dancers came somersaulting out of the wings to leap and kick like people playing some fiendish game of double-dutch.
Although most of the program cleaved to the trademark worldbeat gospel sound (with a bonus crowd-pleasing set of Christmas carols), "Ahuna Ye Tswanang Le Jesu" abruptly shifted gears into hip-hop, as two chorus members dropped a little Jo'burg kwaito on the audience. A girl in front of me started chair-dancing so hard, I felt a sudden twinge of fear that she would tumble right out of the balcony.
At the outset, the impassive audience — a mix of well-heeled oldsters, polar-fleece-clad yuppies, smartly coiffed black ladies, and bookish undergrads — could barely muster a few handclaps and head nods. (From my perch, it looked something like a sleeping dog with a sporadically twitching leg.) But by the time the chorus busted out its soaring finale of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," the hall had transformed into a heaving sea of swaying bodies. Call it a Christmas miracle.
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