In December, in the thick of tributes that poured in following the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir chose to eulogize their leader with an abrupt, but no less affecting, flash-mob-style performance in a grocery store. Posing as produce clerks and shoppers, the choir laid down their shopping baskets and tomatoes and near the checkout aisles sang "Asimbonanga (We Have Not Seen Him)," a cover of Johnny Clegg's 1987 freedom song about Mandela's imprisonment.
Within minutes, real shoppers in the crowded supermarket were singing in unison, moved to tears by the gesture, recalls Beverly Bryer, co-founder and longtime director of the choir. The resulting video went viral on YouTube (4.47 million views as of presstime), a number that still surprises Bryer, whose choir was already in rehearsal for the performance when news of Mandela's death came.
"We were originally supposed to play James Brown's 'I Feel Good' for a campaign to help children with cleft palates, but we changed it last minute. It was spur-of-the-moment," Bryer says. "Everyone was feeling the tremendous loss of Madiba. The tears ran down their faces, but everyone was smiling, and we got emails from all over the place. We are certainly adding it to the setlist."
That "setlist" will be the two-time Grammy-winning choir's concert on Feb. 5 at the Adrienne Arsht Center. But if the choir's global tour began as a way of promoting Soweto's sixth album, "Divine Decade" (released Tuesday in the U.S.), a blend of African gospel, reggae and American pop covers spanning the group's triumphant 10-year existence, the group's tours since Mandela's death have transformed into concerts that praise the South African liberator more than themselves.
Singing in Zulu, Sotho and English — three of South Africa's official languages — Bryer's 24-member choir will take the stage in Miami resplendent in multicolored robes, and sing several of the new album's 19 tracks, including "Valley of Tears," a bluesy cover of the Fats Domino song performed with Robert Plant; an uptempo remix of U2's "Get On Your Boots," featuring a collaboration with Bono; and a cover of Sarah McLachlan's "In the Arms of an Angel." Bryer says the choir came to know Bono, McLachlan, Plant and other high-caliber musicians through a chain of benefit concerts performed in conjunction with Mandela's 46664 campaign, which promotes social awareness about poverty and HIV/AIDS.
"When we formed in 2002, we were only supposed to play one tour. That was it. We never really planned to keep going for 10 years," Bryer says. "I don't think any of the choir has realized yet how fortunate we are. This is a dream they lived, and you feel like this didn't really happen, but it happened."
Bryer says Soweto will also perform a selection of freedom songs celebrating the end of apartheid, and conclude with South Africa's National Anthem.
"We show the pride of Africa, which is what it is because of Nelson Mandela," she says.
Soweto Gospel Choir
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Contact: 305-949-6722 or ArshtCenter.org
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