Soweto Gospel Choir

*“It was like mind-blowing. At first I couldn’t believe it,” said Sipokazi Nxumalo, one of 19 founding members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, about winning their first Grammy Award. “There are 26 members (including band and dancers) and 90% of us have been together since the beginning. Seven or eight have moved on…”

The Soweto Gospel Choir began in 2002 when the groups’ executive producer, Beverly Bryer, and musical director, David Mulovhedzi, held an audition in Soweto to form an “all-star” choir. The result is a choir that won a Grammy Award with their second CD project, “Blessed,” in 2005 – their first CD project “Voices from Heaven” was released in 2004. Last year they released a CD/DVD titled “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre Grace, Inc.” which garnered them a Grammy Award nomination.

In 2010 the World Music choir released “Grace” on Shanachie Entertainment. The 19 selection CD is certainly another award winning album. The harmony is almost perfect – if there is such a thing. To also hear that old-time Traditional Gospel on the same project as Traditional South African Gospel was truly refreshing and brought back memories of my grandfathers church.

“ The awards they just keep us going,” Sipokazi said about all of the accolades they have received.

The Soweto Gospel Choir, aside from performing for Mandela, appeared with Peter Gabriel on “Down to Earth” which appeared on the Disney/Pixar film Wall-E; performed with Celine Dion during her “Taking Chances” tour in South Africa (2008); performed with BeBe Winans and Kirk Franklin, and in 2009 they performed at the Academy Awards singing with John Legend.

The Soweto Gospel Choir are also proud of their work with their foundation which works closely with orphans and victims of AIDS.

“The charitable foundation we founded is our success,” said Nxumalo. “There are eight organizations (in South Africa). There is no government funding or very little. They have no food, no blankets, medication…our foundation can help with such things.”

The Shanachie Soweto Gospel Choir CD, “Grace,” is a must to have. I had many favorites on this project which includes “Kae Le Kae” because of its gutsy lead singer that over laps the beautiful male vocals that are both supported by that harmonic Soweto choir; “Mangisondele Nkosi Yam” a traditional Gospel selection; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with leads by Sipokazi Nxumalo, has a very soulful and gutsy sound and I love them singing in English; “Muphulusi” a traditional South African Gospel selection; “Ndikhokhele” because of its’ almost perfect harmony; “Put Your Hands Medley” a traditional American Gospel selection; “Voices on the Wind” a Contemporary Gospel cut; “Oh! It is Jesus” again I love them singing English, with that  African accent and plus this is yet another traditional Gospel song; “Ave’ Maria” because not only do I love the male vocalist but I haven’t heard this beautiful song in so long, and the title track “Grace” which has a bit of Jazz influence thanks to the piano and electric guitar support.

The Soweto Gospel Choir is currently on tour in the U.S. to promote the CD release of “Grace” that ends in March. For more information on the U.S. tour or the Soweto Gospel Choir log onto www.SowetoGospelChoir.com or www.myspace.com/sowetogospelchoir.

*Saxophonist Michael J. Thomas brings the beat of the city with his new CD release

Even though he was raised around country music – growing up in Kentucky – and heard R&B music from his parents that consisted of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael J. Thomas was drawn towards the saxophone and Jazz. On March 2, 2010 Thomas releases a new CD project, “City Beat,” on Harbor Breeze Music.

“I’m from the country originally…and any opportunity to go to the city I took, “ laughs Michael about the title of the project. “It’s something about the city that I love…the hustle and bustle…I like it.”

His love for the sounds of the city is evident in his new CD project because honestly while listening to it that is exactly what I see in my mind, the comings-and-going of city life.

“You can go to a restaurant in New York at 2 a.m.,” Thomas points out. “The town I live in everything shuts down at 9 p.m.”

Michael said music was all that he ever wanted to do and though his music is classified as Jazz he has been influence by Michael Jackson, Prince and Brian McKnight.

“My last album was a Gospel album,” Michael J. informed me.

Michael, who has a large following in Japan, is backed by some awesome musicians that consist of Eric Lampley on bass; Jonathan Davis on drums; Diki Ross on keyboard; Shannon Wallace on electric guitar, and Paul Scurto on electric guitar/trumpet.

I have so many favorites on this CD. I will try to list a few cuts that stand out which includes “Pretty Skin” for its Smooth Jazz feel, “Mind Your Step” which has a bit of a funky flavor to it with a layer of Smooth Jazz; “Cali Trippin’” where everyone gets a little crazy – Diki on piano, Paul on Trumpet, Shannon on guitar and of course Michael on sax; “Midtown Manhattan” gave me a night club feel; the title track “City Beat” for being a bit sassy, and the Michael Jackson cover “Billie Jean” because I love the “intro” before the cover and I love the way he has his sax singing the “Billie Jean” lyrics.

For more information on Michael J. Thomas and his “City Beat” project log onto www.MichaelJThomas.net, www.myspace.com/michaeljthomas and www.facebook.com/smoothmichaeljthomas.