The Soweto Gospel Choir will find familiar at least one aspect of its Monday performance at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center: the high altitude. Pueblo, at 4,700 feet, sits roughly 1,000 feet lower than Soweto's hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa.
"I know that when it comes to breath and vocals, these gentlemen and ladies they can handle anything," says chorister Bongani "Honey" Ncube. "Personally, the only thing I'll be worried about is my guitar. When changing altitudes, we must readjust the tuning constantly."
Of 52 total members of the choir named for their township of Soweto, located within the provincial capital city 27 are currently adjusting strings across the U.S., while the others tweak gear throughout Europe. The group splits in two "because of the demand," Ncube says, although the group unites on occasion, typically at home.
A Soweto Gospel Choir performance is either a cappella or mildly accompanied by instrumentalists who also sing, in six of South Africa's 11 official languages. Ncube, who plays bass and sings as a tenor, says these six languages are the most commonly spoken in South Africa and are fundamental for understanding the other official and non-official languages.
Although most of the choir's international audiences don't understand the words, Ncube says that they perform in a "language that is universal rhythm, dance, the expressions on our faces."
For the choir members, performing is first about the chorister's relationship with the music, then encouraging a relationship between the music listeners and viewers.
"The songs inspire us before they can inspire the next person," says Ncube, who adds that showing the audience what you feel "becomes second nature after you understand the song."
Soweto Gospel Choir has attained international acclaim since it began to record and perform in late 2002. It's won awards in Australia and South Africa as well as two Grammys in the U.S., and performed for national and international leaders and with mainstream celebrities like Bono and Peter Gabriel.
The choir's great success has allowed it to generously support Nkosi's Haven Vukani, a foundation it established in 2003 to support AIDS orphans in South Africa. According to the choir's Web site (sowetogospelchoir.com), it had raised more than $1 million (U.S.) as of August.
When venues allow, the choir collects donations during shows and contributes a portion of its revenues to the foundation. Soweto's tour schedule also includes visits to orphanages in the countries it visits. At home, the choir's members spend days with orphans.
"We believe that giving to the community is a blessing for us," Ncube says.