When Norfolk Academy’s juniors and seniors filed into First Baptist Church on Bute Street in Norfolk, a historical landmark with stained glass windows and architecture dating to 1906, they had little idea what to expect from a gospel choir, especially one hailing from Soweto, South Africa.
Yet even someone with deep understanding of gospel music might have been astonished by the mid-morning concert that shook the rafters of the church with shouts of “Viva, Nelson Mandela, our hero!” and utterly original versions of the James Brown classic, “I Feel Good,” as well as “Oh Happy Day,” made famous by Aretha Franklin.
The chorus of 10 women and nine men—dressed in bright geometric patterns that proved mesmerizing, almost dizzying, during the group’s frenetic dance battles—had the audience on their feet and clapping, sometimes to the beat, and more frequently, in energetic appreciation of the choir’s harmonies and fervor.
The Soweto Gospel Choir, founded in 2002, is touring North America and Europe with its “Nelson Mandela Centennial Celebration,” which brings attention to Mandela’s role in ending apartheid in South Africa. Many of the songs were sung in a number of South African languages; Soweto has a population of more than 2 million, which makes it the largest black urban settlement in South Africa. However, the choir turned to English for conveying key messages, particularly about Nelson Mandela, noting at one point that Mandela “preferred to spend his entire life in prison just to see us free one day.”
Mandela, the world’s most famous anti-apartheid revolutionary, spent 27 years in prison under brutal conditions, but remained an international celebrity in the fight against oppression. Global pressure and the threat of a civil war led President F.W. de Klerk to grant Mandela’s release in 1990. The two men negotiated an end to apartheid, and Mandela was elected the country’s first black head of state in the majority-black nation in a democratic election. He stepped down in 1999, declining a second term, and went on serve as a spokesman for many causes until his death in 2013.
Many of the choir’s songs referenced Mandela, who was also known as “Madiba,” a clan or family name that represented his ancestry. The choir also sang well-known African-American spirituals, including “Wade in the Water” and “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
For Norfolk Academy students and the many students from Norfolk public schools, the concert was a stirring introduction to musical traditions and history, one that had them singing along and swaying to the beat of a tribal drum.
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