Soweto Gospel Choir brings African song and dance to Florida State

The Soweto Gospel Choir performs a special educational concert for 1,000 middle-school students at Ruby Diamond Concert Hall.

More than 500 local middle school students took in the joyful, soulful sounds of the Soweto Gospel Choir Thursday morning during a master-class performance for Florida State University’s Seven Days of Opening Nights. As the stage lights gleamed and the drums rumbled, the world-renowned gospel choir instantly captivated the crowd with their uplifting music and lively dance.

The choir, which traveled thousands of miles from their native Johannesburg, South Africa to Florida State, is well known internationally for their powerful musical energy, as well as its passion and creativity. They’ve won two Grammy awards, collaborated with the likes of U2, Josh Groban and Diana Ross and performed for presidents and world leaders, from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela.

Dressed in native clothing reminiscent of a kaleidoscopic patchwork, the group performed tribal, traditional and popular African and Western music. They exuded a natural positive vibe that proved to be infectious.

Steve MacQueen, director of Seven Days of Opening Nights, caught on to their exuberance at a performance in Atlanta and has worked since to bring an educational performance for area school children as part of Seven Days.

“I wanted to make that a big push for this year, and I thought they’d be ideal for it because they’re both incredibly fun and exciting, but there’s also an educational element there, an international, cross-cultural vibe,” MacQueen said.

“The exuberance, the energy, the positivity — it’s like that in all African music. It’s the greatest live music because of that positive energy and that explosive good feeling that comes out of it.”

Throughout the show, the performers were highly interactive with the audience. One performer tapped eight volunteers to come on stage to take a stab at dancing to the rhythm of voices and drums.

Lisa Pettit, a teacher at Deer Lake Middle School said she thought the performance was a fun and engaging cultural experience for her students.

“Just to see the joy that they had on their faces performing this music — you could tell their whole being was involved in making this music today,” Pettit said. “And it was visual too, their costumes were beautiful, and so it was just a treat for every sense.”

Pettit’s students, Suzanna Dodson and Krysten Belon, said they enjoyed the interaction they had with the performers.

“It was so good and really entertaining how they danced around,” said Belon, who admitted she was so moved by the group’s energy that she was hardly able to stay in her seat. “All the colors were so cool. I especially liked how they got up there and did ‘The Dougie.’”

MacQueen said he wanted the students not only to have a great time but also to realize that the American and African cultures aren’t so different after all.

“These are people are from South Africa, which is 8,000 miles away. It’s a different world—and yet musically and culturally there are similarities that bind us all together,” MacQueen said.

“It’s that commonality more than the differences. I think we heard a lot of American music in that African music, and just to see and make those connections and have a great time, it was a great start. I definitely want to do more of these things throughout the years.”