If you’ve been to a Fringe before – in Adelaide, Edinburgh or otherwise – chances are you’ll have seen the Soweto Gospel Choir. If not on stage, then on the streets, in variety galas, or you’ll have heard about them from friends. They’re an arts festival mainstay and an indefatigable company, with Grammys and more besides on their collective mantelpiece.
Part of their continued success is their energetic, colourful shows, with the 20-strong choir bedecked in illustrious traditional outfits and beaming wide, expressive smiles. What makes them extra important is their commitment to celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity of not only their homeland, South Africa, but the African continent more broadly. This year the repetoire includes, alongside their gospel originals and pop interpetations, an ode to Nelson Mandela. But even right after the opening number – sung in the South African click language Xhosa – there is explicit reference to the country’s varied linguistic tapestry, relegating English to a minority position.
This is Soweto’s greatest strength. It’s tough to sustain their energy – and our attention – for a full hour, and they do an admirable job, but in all a show like this is like festival sorbet. It cleanses the spiritual palate, taking us thousands of miles away from the Fringe’s surfeit of cynical comedians, self-important cabaret and anglocentric theatre. And you don’t need to understand the words for that to be effective.