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Sarah Unruh ’12

Final HBPA event brings world-renowned South African choir to Bethel stage

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – You’ve been hearing them this month on KMUW-FM’s “Global Village,” and now the Soweto Gospel Choir is coming to Bethel College.

The final event in this year’s Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts Series is also the kickoff for the first-ever “Spring into the Arts” Festival, sponsored by the Newton Area Arts Council.

The Emmy and Grammy Award-winning choir will be in Bethel’s Memorial Hall March 28 at 7:30 p.m.

According to HBPA director Matthew Schloneger, in a large city, a ticket to see the Soweto Gospel Choir could run $60-100. Tickets for their HBPA appearance are $27, with discounts for students and senior citizens.

Reserved-seating tickets are available at the Hesston College Bookstore (620-327-8158) or through the HBPA website, hesstonbethel.org. Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel campus (316-284-5205) is an outlet for general admission tickets.

Soweto Gospel Choir launched their fifth major North American tour Feb. 4. The internationally renowned vocal ensemble will perform in 37 cities, concerts that reflect the color and vibrancy of their rainbow nation while honoring the life and legacy of their late president and friend, Nelson Mandela.

The tour supports the choir’s fifth album, Divine Decade, released in the United States Jan. 28 on the Decca label, a celebration of the ensemble’s past 10 years of artistic collaborations and accolades.

The recording showcases the diversity of the group’s style as a gospel choir that sings across all musical genres. It features collaborations with a wide range of guest artists, including U2, Robert Plant, The Soil, Joepraize, Zahara, Elvis Blue, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Solly Mahlangu, Corlea Botha, Eric Wainaina, Johnny Clegg, Paul Ruske and HHP.

Among the featured tracks are “Sedilaka”; Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”; The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”; and the Fish Out of Water remix of “Put On Your Boots,” Soweto Gospel Choir’s collaboration with U2.

Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in November 2002 and released their first album, Voices of Heaven, a month later. Within three weeks of its U.S. debut, in early 2005, the album was at No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music chart.

In the 1980s, fellow South African performers such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo had introduced many in the United States to the lush, tight harmonies of South African vocal music. A Soweto Gospel Choir live performance includes rich vocal performances along with athletic dance numbers and spectacularly colorful traditional garb.

Soweto Gospel Choir received two American Gospel Music Association awards in 2003. Their second and third albums, Blessed and African Spirit, won back-to-back Grammy Awards for Best Traditional World Music Album, in 2007 and 2008.

The choir has performed or recorded with the Black-Eyed Peas, Diana Ross, Bebe Winans, Kirk Franklin, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Shakira, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, among others. They were a support act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at concerts in Germany in 2007.

In the United States, the Soweto Gospel Choir has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The choir has toured the world extensively, performing at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Royal Festival Hall in London, as well as at high-profile festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival, the Adelaide Festival and the Hong Kong Festival.

Soweto Gospel Choir’s collaboration with Peter Gabriel on the song “Down to Earth” in the movie Wall-E won a Grammy in 2008. In February 2009, the choir became the first South African artist or group to perform at the Academy Awards, when they sang “Down to Earth,” nominated for an Oscar, with John Legend.

The choir collaborated with U2 as the featured South African artist on three songs for ESPN’s promotional campaign for the 2010 World Cup, which earned them a Sports Emmy Award in 2011.

Also in 2011, 18 choir members performed six concerts in Maastricht, The Netherlands, with top-selling classical violinist Andre Rieu, joining the Harlem Gospel Choir onstage as a first-time collaboration between these world-famous choirs.

The choir sang at the 2011 launch of their patron, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s, new book, backing Bono on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” as a surprise for the archbishop. Bono’s word for them was “brilliant.”

Besides praising God and promoting cultural understanding all over the world, Soweto Gospel Choir is dedicated to supporting various charitable organizations. In 2003, the choir set up Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani to raise funds for AIDS orphan establishments that receive no government or private funding.

The choir is currently on an extensive North American tour. After their appearance at Bethel College, they will be in Lawrence and Manhattan, on the campuses of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University.

Soweto Gospel Choir’s appearance in the HBPA Series is funded in part by the cities of Hesston and North Newton; Excel Industries and Hustler Turf Equipment (Hesston); the Hesston Community Foundation; Holiday Inn Express, Newton; other area businesses and patrons; the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; and the NEA itself.

The Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts series started in 1982 as Hesston Performing Arts (HPA) with funding and planning provided by Hesston College and the Hesston community. In 1998, HPA planners launched a partnership with Bethel College, and the series name changed to Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts. Hesston College in Hesston and Bethel College in North Newton host performances each year.