South African Gospel Starter CDs

Soul-Stirring Music From South Africa's Finest Choirs and Soloists

Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform during the Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song Gala

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images 

South African Gospel first hit the international music scene when Paul Simon introduced us to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his game-changing 1986 release Graceland. Since then, it's remained a calm but mighty force in global music, drawing fans from both the Christian and the secular world. A very short list of groups have dominated the genre, at least as far as the international market goes, but there are literally thousands upon thousands of great artists and choirs from all over South Africa who are worth checking out. Here are some CDs that'll get your exploration started.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo - The Warner Brothers Collection

If you're going to start a South African gospel collection, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is probably the best place to start. Technically speaking, their music is a combination of Christian gospel themes with the stylings of isicathamiya music, a genre which sprung up among enslaved Zulu diamond mine workers as a way to play traditional Zulu mbube music without waking the camp guards -- it's sung in hushed voices and is accompanied by very quiet, tip-toe based dancing (isicathamiya translates as "tip toe guys"). This collection of their early greatest hits includes hit songs like "Homeless" and "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain" as well as Christian songs such as "King of Kings" and a spectacularly beautiful version of "Amazing Grace."

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Soweto Gospel Choir - 'Blessed'

Soweto Gospel Choir took home a Grammy Award for this 2006 album which features their signature sound, blending traditional South African choir traditions with some elements of Southern American Urban Gospel, as well as bits and pieces of other traditional and contemporary genres from around the African continent. It's an excellent piece of recorded work from a band that's very easy to love. A particularly wonderful component of their sound is their uniquely South African style of call-and-response singing, which is beautiful in and of itself but adds the special touch of making it a great CD to sing along with at home.

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Rebecca Malope - 'Gospel Queen of Africa'

Rebecca Malope is South Africa's most celebrated and best-known gospel soloist and has released over two dozen CDs since the mid-1980s, at least six of which have reached platinum status in South Africa. This compilation covers a fair bit of her material, most of which is recorded in the Zulu language, but all of which focuses on Christian themes. She's a wonderful singer, and though some of her earlier material is just a tiny bit dated, it's still an inspirational collection, to be sure.

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Alexandria Youth Choir - 'South African Choral'

The South African choral tradition dates back to missionary days and the times of the early Boer settlements, and incorporates both ancient traditional vocal styles (particularly from Zulu traditions, but others as well) and European choral music, and more recently, contemporary gospel music from the United States as well. The Alexandra Youth Choir, a group made up exclusively of children, sticks pretty strongly to the traditional side of things, but in a way that incorporates several sub-traditions, both musical and linguistic (they sing in at least four languages). They do use some modern twists, though, including synthesizer and percussive accompaniment which, combined with their quite literal youthfulness, make for a fun, high-energy record.

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Mara Louw and the African Methodist Choir - 'African Hymns'

Mara Louw is a popular South African singer who has performed and recorded a number of different genres (and was even a judge on Idols, South Africa's version of American Idol, for several seasons), but who returned to her gospel roots with African Hymns. The African Methodist Choir is one of South Africa's most renowned classical-style choirs, and they really are the stars here; Louw acts as a powerful soloist, but it's the group singing that is the most magical. For fans of more traditional Western-style choral music, this is probably the best choice of all the albums on this list, and they may even recognize a few of the hymns here, though they're performed in Xhosa and Sotho rather than the original English.

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The Rough Guide to South African Gospel

The first five entries on this list are from individual artists and choirs; the rest (including this one) are multi-artist compilations. The excellent Rough Guide to South African Gospel is a great place to start if you're looking for a smooth introduction to the genre, and it comes with well-written and very complete liner notes. It includes some of the usual suspects (Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Rebecca Malope are both represented) but also lots of lesser-known groups from around the country, thus covering a diverse range of the different styles that have been recorded over the years.

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South African Gospel

This simply-named compilation, from UK-based record label ARC Music, features a couple of tracks from the Soweto Gospel Choir, but otherwise mostly features groups that are locally and regionally popular throughout South Africa. The liner notes point out that ARC has made a special point of including several cuts from artists from the ZCC (Zion Christian Church), the largest denomination in primarily-Christian South Africa, but one whose music is under-represented in recordings. Several other denominations are also represented, of course.

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Tales of South African Gospel: Choral and Contemporary

Tales of South African Gospel covers the gospel choir stylings of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a few lesser-known choirs but also touches on some contemporary artists who have more in common with, say, Kirk Franklin or Mary Mary than their more traditional counterparts. That is to say, if you like a more contemporary sound, this is a good place to start!

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Celebrate the Best of South African Choral and Gospel

This is a pretty straightforward CD that takes a gander through some of South Africa's bestselling contemporary groups, primarily focusing on a more modern sound with a few notable traditional-style exceptions (check out Imvuselelo Yase Natali "Elika Jesu," in particular).

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God Bless Africa: The Very Best of South African Gospel

This album is second only to the previously mentioned Rough Guide to South African Gospel in terms of diversity of sounds: ultra-traditional to contemporary, with several languages and Christian denominations represented. God Bless Africa also covers a good range of well-known to completely obscure artists and really does make for a nice introduction to the genre and the wide range of sounds that it covers.