Blog: Gospel music: the African heritage

Submitted by afroziky May 4, 2012, 4:55 p.m.

Gospel music: the African heritage

Soweto Gospel Choir

Before the imperialists came, Africans lived a life of serenity. In their villages at night, the locals gathered under the glow of the moon and in the true communal spirit they celebrated with one another, mourned with one another or simply just spent time together.

The indigenous developed their own ways of sharing their joys and sorrows; they drummed and danced and sang together. But the arrival of the colonialists marked the beginning of one of the most shameful acts of oppression and suppression the world has ever seen. Shiploads of men, women and children from different parts of Africa were taken off into the New World and into forced labour. Not only were they made to work on huge plantations, but every form of attachment to their homeland was brutally stripped from them; they lost their families and their freedom.

One thing that could not be taken from them was their heritage. In the fields, under the blazing sun, they gained inspiration from religious stories told to them from the Bible. Out there, they could identify with many of the characters from stories they had heard. To give them strength and keep them going, they sang whilst working; one person would sing out a verse and the rest would respond in chorus. They sang songs of redemption and freedom in hope that one day they would be delivered into the Promised Land.

Church and religion became their shelter and they soon began to fuse songs they learnt in slavery with their own native styles; African traditions such as harmony and rhythmic drumming. And such, the roots of one of the most popular forms of music took hold; Spirituals or Gospel Music, as it is known today.  

 Nelson Mandela couldn’t have captured the spirit behind this kind of music any better when he said, “The curious beauty about African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope. African music is often about the aspirations of the African people...”

Gospel music has moved on in leaps and bounds, but one distinct legacy of the African tradition remains imprinted on Gospel.  This is the call and response fashion most works of gospel conform to. Mahalia Jackson, who is regarded as the first queen of gospel music has been among those who have cited their gospel music origin, back at their churches as having had a significant influence on them. Africa is a continent which has embraced the Gospel music culture; these are very religious people, and there are many examples, of successful African Gospel musicians and groups, but one group has distinguished itself and remains a shining star worthy of emulation. This is the group which has taken Gospel, an origination of Africans, and turned it into a marvelous art form with their energetic performances across the globe - Soweto Gospel Choir.

Formed in November 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has gone on to become one of the most recognizable voices on the international Gospel scene; earning numerous accolades including Grammy and Emmy awards and an Oscar nomination.      

 From its humble beginnings, Gospel music has blazed a path unimaginable before, and it is refreshing to note as Africans, that one of the world’s most popular genres of music began its journey from these beaches, left in chains, and after a brief sojourn in the New World returned to its shores triumphant.   

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