Christmas Review



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 Soul Noel

Featuring Sibongile Khumalo & Ola Onabule

Billie Godfrey – soprano

Phebe Edwards – soprano

Mary Pierce – alto

Chantelle Duncan – alto

Bryan Chamber – tenor

Daniel Thomas – tenor

Victor Bynoe – bass

Ken Burton – bass

Kevin Robinson – Musical Director/trumpet/flugel horn

Femi Temowo - guitars

Robert Mitchell – piano

Neville Malcolm – bass

Richard Bailey - drums


Queen Elizabeth Hall


Southbank Centre


11 -13 December 2009








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This rousing show, with its enthralling performances of traditional Christmas carols arranged in non-traditional ways is designed to infuse its listeners with enlivening doses of Christmas spirit. With some well- placed African carols adding depth and intensity to the mix, the show becomes an out and out treasure trove of highly uplifting, thoroughly engaging performances.

Musical Director Kevin Robinson began the show by encouraging the audience to clap along as a ‘choir’ of eight singers, almost acting as extensions of the instruments: bass, drums, guitar, piano, keyboard, burst into the familiar refrains of ‘Joy to the World,’ set to a more contemporary, jazz meets gospel style. This was no ordinary choir, as its singers, each with their own distinct voice, performed various parts, like mini solos within the context of their octet.

A baby at this matinee performance loudly cooed ‘Da Da’ as the singers went into a drum infused, percussive song. and their voices swelled to a fervent pitch, accompanied only by drums, bells and the sound of sticks beating on wood. Ola Onabule appeared to transport listeners with his thrillingly powerful voice, against the cacophony, dancing to its infectious rhythms. After the song was through and the applause had died down, he smiled at the audience introducing himself, adding with a smile, ‘I guess you can tell I’m from Islington...via Lagos, Nigeria. His subsequent rendition of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was richly mellow, warm and resonant, setting a wonderfully soulful tone. 

Onabule’s female counterpart Sibongile Khumalo took to the stage for a jazz/soul version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’, with a beat, easing into a traditional African carol, ‘Dearly Beloved’ after, with Kevin Roberts on trumpet providing a moving instrumental break tinged with sentiment, while a call and response between the choir and Khumalo with the group echoing her lyrics rounded off the hymn. Khumalo’s emotive singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ assumed the mournful, contrite tone its lyrics denote with the choir adding high, ethereal notes suggestive of spirits and bass tones implying struggle. This expressively soulful rendition of a traditional hymn elevated the performance in conjunction with smoothly understated trumpet by director, Robinson, the latter of which added dimension to the song. In this instance, Khumalo notably sang with, rather than above the choir.

A cheering reggae version of ‘Deck the Halls’ fairly made us roll out of our seats, so intense was the urge to dance along inspired by it, with its distinct tinges of enlivening gospel and jazz . On a very upbeat rendition of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, much more multi-layered than many of us are used to, each choir member, and soloist performed a different ‘day’ or two, out of the dozen spoken of in the lyrics, with beautiful harmonising on the chorus. This sense of individuality was continued on ‘Ding, Dong Merrily on High’, another lively reggae take on an old favourite.

Sing-a-long ‘Jingle Bells’ and a rocking ‘Rudolph’ opened part two, with some very hip, in the soulful, non commercial sense of the word, vocals from two of the choir members, Mary Pierce and Daniel Thomas. The warm-hearted voice of their fellow chorister Victor Bynoe, lead the way on ‘White Christmas’, enabling mental pictures of snowy scenery.

Sibongile Khumalo retuned with a tender version of ‘Away in a Manger’ which was contemporary, but reverent, given its’ dreamily breath-taking arrangement. Rob Mitchell on piano expressed the mystery and beauty of emotions through his exquisite playing. Once again, the choir provided distinctive backing, stripping away all commercialism to get to the heart of the meaning in the carol.

A jazzy ska ‘Hark the Herald’ was nearly indescribable with its marvellous sound design conjuring up hoards of angels, while ‘Remember Your Faith’, another traditional African hymn had the choir forming an angelic wall of sound, their collective harmonies lending wonderfully resonant rhythms. ‘Paradise Road’, an evocative, soulful duet performed by Khumalo and Onabule, on which the choir acted as a mirroring gospel chorus singing of being ‘free from heartache without any pain’ nearly raised spirits through the roof.

During the singing of ‘Silent Night’, Robinson directed the choir as though they were an orchestra, drawing a lush backdrop from them of as deep vocals as you could ever wish for, switching over to trumpet, generating a solo which enabled the song to end on a particularly high note. A Ramsey Lewis flavoured ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ rounded off the show, with some hot licking guitar, rousing choral singing and stellar piano playing, wishing a Happy, music-filled Christmas to all!




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