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South African choir to bring rich harmony and high energy to Bethel College stage

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- They were featured in Oprah magazine (January 2005) and got raves from the New York Times. This past January, they appeared on NBC-TV’s Today show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. They’re headed for the West Coast, the East Coast and Carnegie Hall on their current tour. But first they’re coming to south central Kansas. The Soweto Gospel Choir, which kicked off its sophomore recording tour in late January, will be the next featured artists in the Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts series, appearing Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. in Memorial Hall on the Bethel College campus.

Most of the 26 members of this a cappella choir hail from the townships of urban South Africa, particularly Johannesburg and Soweto. The choir released its American debut recording, Voices from Heaven, just a year ago, in January 2005. Voices from Heaven went to #1 on Billboard’s world music charts and made the top five in CMJ’s world music list. The choir’s current tour promotes Blessed, released on Jan. 24, 2006. Both recordings are on the Shanachie Entertainment label.

In the 1980s, fellow South African performers such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo introduced many in the United States to the lush, tight harmonies of South African vocal music. Today, experiencing the Soweto Gospel Choir live includes emotionally rich vocal performances of traditional South African hymns and Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho gospel songs, athletic dance numbers and spectacularly colored traditional garb. The choir’s performance in Atlanta last year prompted an Atlanta Journal Constitution reviewer to say, "Hearing the full choir harmonize sounded less like a couple of dozen people singing together and more like a pipe organ roaring to life."

Besides spreading praise to God and cultural understanding, the Soweto Gospel Choir holds another mission close to its heart. In 2003, the choir set up a foundation for AIDS orphans, called Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani ("vukani" means "Do something!"). The choir’s charity exists in conjunction with Nkosi’s Haven, a Soweto-based AIDS-care project established by Gail Johnson, whose late son Nkosi at age 11 gave a moving address to a United Nations international AIDS conference that was televised worldwide. Nkosi’s Haven raises funds for AIDS orphan establishments that receive no government or private funding.

The choir has been able to raise a significant amount of money to buy food and other essentials for numerous needy organizations. Musical director David Mulovhedzi said, "As South Africans, we’re in a position where we’re working hard to help the helpless, especially children. When we perform around the world, we receive donations and when we return home, we use them to buy whatever those kids might need."

The Soweto Gospel Choir is comprised of young musicians mostly in their 20s. Australian producers Andrew Kay, David Vigo and Clifford Hocking formed the choir in 2002, and the choir has quickly achieved critical acclaim under the direction of Mulovhedzi and South African executive producer and show director Beverly Bryer. Bryer and Mulovedzi formed a "super-choir" made up of the best singers from Mulovhedzi’s own Holy Jerusalem Choir as well as from various Soweto churches and the general public.

Africa in general (and South Africa in particular) has a long and diverse history with gospel music. When Africans came into contact with European missionaries and churches, they quickly absorbed their religious music and blended it with local traditional music to come up with unique styles and repertoires of spiritual songs. South Africa has long been noted for powerful singers and a cappella vocal traditions of great beauty. The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed to celebrate this tradition of African gospel music and has earned the support of former South African president Nelson Mandela as well as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the choir’s patron.

"Soweto Gospel Choir enjoys singing and preaching the gospel through its music," Mulovhedzi said. "When our producers announced that we were to tour the U.S. a second time, the choir was very excited, because we know that gospel music is popular in America and we feel that we will also contribute a lot with our own South African traditional gospel."

The Soweto Gospel Choir’s appearance at HBPA is supported by Mid-America Arts Alliance, with generous underwriting by the National Endowment for the Arts, Kansas Arts Commission, and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

Tickets are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel College campus, open weekdays from 8 to 5 or by calling (316) 284-5205, as well as by calling Hesston College toll-free at (866) 437-7866. Tickets are $15, $13 and $12, with discounts for students and senior citizens.

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