Voices raised to the rafters, and the heavens, the Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir spreads its ministry through song.
Since its founding in 2002 in Soweto, South Africa, the choir has performed for Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. Soweto Gospel, which sings in six of South Africa's 11 official languages, also has accompanied stars such as Diana Ross, Bono and Queen.
Tomorrow, the choir takes the stage here at the Kimmel Center, offering listeners the gospel, and seeking donations at show's end for children assisted through its AIDS charity.
The 52-member group has toured major countries since its first show six years ago in Australia.
"We rehearsed for two months. People loved us. From that point, we saw ourselves traveling all over the world," alto Sipokazi Luzipo said in a telephone interview.
Luzipo, a native of Johannesburg, joined the choir its first year after auditioning for Popstars, South Africa's version of American Idol. "I auditioned, hoping that a producer would see me, and the executive producer for the gospel choir heard me, and told me about auditions for the choir," said Luzipo, the choir's youngest member at 25.
The group has toured the United States four times, its repertoire including storytelling and renditions of great American classics.
" 'I'll Remember You' by Bob Dylan is a crowd favorite - we give it our own interpretation," Luzipo said. Another international favorite is "Amazing Grace."
Soweto Gospel has won the Grammy Award for best traditional world music album twice, for 2007's African Spirit and 2006's Blessed. Just last week the choir received a Grammy nomination for its CD Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, for best contemporary world music album. In 2003, the choir won a Helpmann Award, Australia's biggest musical award, for best contemporary music concert. And in 2004, it won a Gospel Music Award in the United States for best international choir.
Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are among the major African supporters of the choir's work. Mandela "was so impressed by us. He has become a father figure to the choir," Luzipo said. "Working with such great leaders is humbling."
The choir keeps performances simple, with 80 percent of their work sung a cappella in four-part harmony. "In Africa, we are known for the big voices, and the crowd just goes wild for the baritones," Luzipo said.
In 2003, the choir founded Nkosi's Haven Vukani, a Soweto-based foundation assisting AIDS orphans. Through donations and collections after every show, they have raised $135,800 for the charity in the United States and more than $1 million worldwide.
The choir's compassion extends to many causes for the disadvantaged in Africa. "We come in as a group and provide things for homes like refrigerators, blankets and food," Luzipo said. "Little orphans especially - it is very little that they can do for themselves and it is so beautiful to know that our success is to benefit so many people at home."
The choir's biggest mission is to spread the word of God wherever they go, Luzipo says. "God has predestined us for this time."