When it comes to world-renowned keepers of the great South African choral music flame, two enterprises spring to mind. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, coming to the Lobero Theater next spring, formed in 1960 and was brought into broader global consciousness, in part, through work on Paul Simon’s Graceland. In terms of post-Apartheid cultural history, Soweto Gospel Choir, formed by the late David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer in 2003, has captivated audiences and the music world in general, and makes its welcome return to Campbell Hall on Wednesday, November 2.
Both groups produce a celebratory sound rooted in gospel music, projecting vibrancy and joy despite the legacies of strife and adversities in their native land. Both groups also accentuate the strong natural and continuingly symbiotic relationship between African and American music. Thus, we feel no cognitive dissonance or disarming surprise in soaking in Soweto Gospel Choir’s bold new program Hope, which switch-hits between South African songs — including Hugh Masakela’s “Sechaba” — and spirituals from both continents, alongside freshly-arranged takes on such American classics as the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Steve Wonder’s “Heaven Help us All,” and even Mike + the Mechanics’ gospel-infused hit “The Living Years.”
The group has won three Grammy awards in the Best Traditional World Music category, for Blessed, AfricanSpirit and Freedom, respectively, and a long list of collaborators over the years has included the likes of Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Bono, Peter Gabriel and John Legend. They have been granted audience — and engaged as audience — with such powerful leaders as President Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, President Barack Obama, and Montecito’s own Oprah Winfrey.
The current tour promises to usher in a fresh wave of spirit-rejuvenating energy for this still-tender late-pandemic cultural environment. On a timely tour and program dubbed “HOPE — It’s Been a Long Time Coming,” the group mixes material from South Africa and soul music with links to the Civil Rights Movement, including the timelessly anthemic Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come,” another natural fit on the new album.
The concert comes to us courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures. It is a prime example of the series’ intentional focus on music and figures of global importance, as well as a renewed attention paid to programming aligned with themes of racial justice and inclusiveness. And in the case of this event, hope is the stated, driving and harmonious force.