Arts: World Music: Oldtime religion

South African Gospel Singers Queen Elizabeth Hall London
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The Independent Culture
IT PRESSES all the audience's right buttons if you call yourselves the South African Gospel Singers, especially in what remains of the season of goodwill. The QEH was packed and eventually buzzing. Quite different from the usual multicultural world music public, this was an eclectic mix of traditional Christians and other people looking for a change from carol concerts, more white than black.

They certainly had their change. By the middle of the second half the ones in the choir seats were dancing, all of them, an extraordinary sight that soon got the stalls going. Eclectic is the word for the Singers too, a group of voices from the republic meeting up each year with players from London. They use elements from several southern African traditions, but the essence is good old three-chord gospel.

Conducted by their lead singer, the small but powerfully formed (and powerfully sonorous) Pinise Saul, the dozen-strong chorus works up a relaxed energy with the precision choral harmony that makes it all sound easy. Before the interval the music was nominally a capella: that's to say using plain and simple piano support as often as not, preceded by impressionistic intros in a compendium of retro styles from 19th-century operatic transcription to 1930s smoochy American. The numbers, a fathomless mine of old favourites, were mostly short and quickly turned upbeat.

Only a few got the audience really going, but the arrival of two guitarists and two drummers soon woke them up. The lead player and music director, Lucky Ranku,, who in many ways supplied the evening's musical high points, worked his way through a whole string of sparky solos hiding behind the men of the chorus. For the last half-hour of a long set the Singers kept the mood high by sheer momentum. This is another world from Ladysmith Black Mambazo's sophisticated arrangements and cleverly personalised stage act. The Singers stand on stage in an arc and, apart from moving around a bit, they stay there. Only one Big Personality comes across, and that's the formidable Pinise herself, barking out the names of the songs and keeping the show up to speed.

Some of the songs are secular, but they are all done with the same fervour, and that is the Singers' secret. Without waving religion in your face, they make the music and the joy of singing and playing the centre of it all. Who needs an act when you've got that?

Robert Maycock

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