Two giants of the South African music industry have collaborated on a unique album that celebrates iconic homegrown songs – and provides an uplifting, energising and unifying experience for all music fans.
The South African Songbook brings together eight times SAMA award winning South African pop star, Kurt Darren, and SAMA & Grammy Award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir for a remarkable 13 song cycle that’s as unique as it is warm-hearted and all-embracing.
In the intention of its creators, The South African Songbook is nothing less than a sonic love letter to the best of South African artistry. It is one that is carried by heartfelt recordings that invigorate the original songs with a distinctive style, drawn from Darren’s buoyant pop and Soweto Gospel Choir’s transcendent and exhilarating voices.
The collection is heralded by the singles “African Dream” and “Vulindlela”, both released across all digital platforms on 3 July (Vulindlela) and 10 July (African Dream). Vicky Sampson’s emotional classic and Brenda Fassie’s SAMA 2004 Song of the Decade together provide the perfect introduction to this exceptional album.
“These songs represent a great scope of iconic songs to come out of South Africa,” says Kurt Darren while Soweto Gospel Choir’s Gugu Mbongwa describes the album as enhancing “our understanding of our diversity and culture, and bringing it together”.
The South African Songbook will be released on July 17th, on the eve of Mandela Day – a fitting date that recalls the first time Darren and Soweto Gospel Choir performed together when they both joined Eddy Grant for a rousing version of his anthemic “Gimme Hope Jo’Anna” at the 46664 concert in London’s Hyde Park in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday.
“When I met Madiba before the concert, I was struck by the human connection that he took such care to make with me,” recalls Darren of that 2008 event. “I will also never forget how the choir took me under their wing for that performance, bringing to life the connections between South Africa’s diverse cultures and musical styles with such grace. I am proud that this album reflects a coming together by all of this country’s amazing people. It’s an album that makes you feel good, deep in your gut, no matter what your background – and that is something that I always try to achieve with my music. And what an honour to be captured on record with such a celebrated group of singers whose voices move me in almost indescribable ways.”
Indeed, The South African Songbook carries the spirit of hope and togetherness that defined that concert – two things that have become increasingly important as the world collectively attempts to find ways of dealing with the current pandemic. “The repertoire on this album has been built around songs of hope,” affirms Soweto Gospel Choir’s Nertia Mofokeng. “And when the pandemic comes to an end, they will be songs of victory as we celebrate the battle won with the world and a new time of living in harmony with our loved ones.”
With some of the recording done in the iconic M5 studio in Johannesburg’s Auckland Park, the music on The South African Songbook has a warm, authentic feel. This is especially audible on the rendition of Mango Groove’s “Special Star” which features Mduduzi Magwaza – the song’s co-writer and original player – on pennywhistle.
The album’s other standouts are a moving version of Solomon Linda’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, a poignant delivery of Bright Blue’s eighties protest song “Weeping”, an irresistible and danceworthy take on Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata”, and an inspiring version of PJ Powers’ anthem “Jabulani”.
Two of the emotional highpoints on The South African Songbook are Juluka’s “Impi” – all the more affecting following the death of co-founder Johnny Clegg – and the traditional, “Shosholoza”. The latter featured on Soweto Gospel Choir’s African Spirit, which earned the group their second Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2007, following their first a year earlier for Blessed. Fans of Darren’s signature sound will be thrilled to see the inclusion of his enduring hit, “Loslappie” as well as a lovely take on Koos du Plessis’ “Kinders van die Wind” while “Gebed” (the only three songs not featuring the choir) spotlights Darren’s evergreen pop voice and closes the album on a reflective note.
Although he and Soweto Gospel Choir have performed live many times – including regular Christmas Carol shows – for Darren, the song that first opened the door to this kind of creative collaboration was his version of Mafikizolo’s “Ndihamba Nawe”. With the support of the duo he had reworked their 2007 hit into “Kom Bietjie Hier” for 2009’s Die Beste Medisyne and, three years later, Mafikizolo’s Theo Kgosinkwe featured Darren on “Lief Vir Jou” off his solo album Grateful. Fans of both the Mafikizolo original and “Kom Bietjie Hier” will be happy to know that Soweto Gospel Choir and Darren join forces for a brilliant new take on “Ndihamba Nawe” on The South African Songbook.
“’Ndihamba Nawe’s original lyrics mean ‘come go with me’ or ‘let me go with you’ but if you go deep into it, they say ‘I choose to go with you’,” says Darren. “That is, in so many ways, the message of this collaboration – and the one that we want to convey to the whole of South Africa. Let’s choose to walk with each other, accompanied by this awesome soundtrack of great South African songs.”
‘Kurt made it easy to work together,” says Mofokeng of the collaboration. “Listening to his soothing voice made us sing even better – to the point where we blended so well and come out with a smooth harmony. Since our inception, our choir’s mission has been to see people united in one love and one heart right across the world, and that is what this album achieves.” Concludes Mbongwa, “We are honoured and grateful to have been part of this nostalgic tribute to great music recorded by so many iconic artists.”