28 March 2007
It’s a testament to the borderless appeal of the Soweto Gospel Choir that its chief choreographer pays little attention to what city it’s in.
In a phone interview from a Holiday Inn, Shimmy Jiyane needs a quick consultation with choir mates before he can pinpoint their location as a blustery Duluth, Minn.
That places the 26-voice choir — which spent all but two weeks on the road in 2006 — at roughly the halfway mark of a dizzying, 50-city North American blitz that arrives at Calgary’s Jack Singer Hall tonight.
“I don’t really know the cities,” he says.
“Today, there is no snow but it is freezing outside. It’s been very good. The audiences are very good. But it’s very cold.”
Movement — whether it be dancing on stage or crisscrossing the continent in a tour bus — is key to the choir’s mandate of spreading South African culture. And it’s a task the choir has taken to with missionary zeal since its 2002 formation.
“It’s important for us to express ourselves to many people,” says Jiyane, who is also a lead vocalist for the group. “We want to take everything we know and combine it together. We want people all over to say, ‘Wow, what’s happening in South Africa?’ We need to show the people through the choreography and through the music.”
In the past four years, the Soweto Gospel Choir has enjoyed a steady climb to acclaim on the world music stage; becoming the leading exporter of South African music in the process.
In 2003, the choir backed Bono, Peter Gabriel, the Eurythmics and surviving members of Queen for a concert in South Africa benefiting Nelson Mandela’s AIDS prevention charity. Its 2005 debut album, Voices from Heaven, rose to the top of Billboard’s world music charts.
In February, it picked up the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World album for its sophomore release, Blessed.
All of which has set the stage for its third album, African Spirit — an ambitious crossover attempt that mixes African traditionals with the more secular strains of U2, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
For Jiyane, who used to be a professional soccer player in his native South Africa before discovering dance, the choir’s embrace of secular songs doesn’t diminish the spiritual nature of its performance, nor does it dampen the distinctly “African” feel of the joyful Zulu harmonies and rhythms on stage.
Whether spinning traditional African tales or offering a soulful reworking of Dylan’s Forever Young, the choir’s main goal is to lift the spirits of the audience, he says.
“These are songs that we enjoy because of the message,” he says. “We love taking the message to the people.”
This is not to say the Soweto Gospel Choir ignores its country’s troubled history.
The ghosts of political strife haunt the song list, which often includes Peter Gabriel’s harrowing Biko and the moving anti-apartheid lament, Weeping.
Those songs sit alongside more euphoric numbers, whether they be gospel hand-clappers praising Jesus or Bob Marley’s One Love.
“When our show starts, we try and express our hurt,” says Jiyane, whose lead vocals on Weeping are considered a Soweto highlight. “We struggled a lot and through the struggling sometimes we saw no way to go forward.
“The songs we start with are often the songs about hurting. In the second segment we talk about our joy. We try to show the people both.”
And the message isn’t limited to music alone. A Soweto show is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Backed by two drummers and a four-piece band, the performances are choreographed by Jiyane.
For Jiyane and members of the choir, standing still while singing is a bit of a puzzling concept.
“We like to sing and dance at the same time,” he says.
“If you go to our church is South Africa, you will never see anyone standing still. There is always movement happening. So we try to express ourselves. And if we sing, we cannot stand.”