By Bob Keefer
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir makes its Eugene debut in a single performance at the Hult Center on Tuesday.
Founded in 2002, the 26-member South African choir sings gospel music in a fusion of African tribal, traditional and popular styles, incorporating djembe drumming, stamping, trills and throat clicks.
Among the singers is 32-year-old Shimmy Jiyane, who talked to us last week from his room at the Holiday Inn in Duluth, Minn., where the touring choir had stopped for the night.
A former professional dancer who taught tap, jazz and ballet, he joined the choir in the beginning as a choreographer.
Only later did the group decide to put his tenor voice to work as well.
Jiyane sees his work with the choir as a religious as well as a musical calling.
“I was happy to come and do it, singing gospel,” he said.”I am a Christian, also. It is a good thing for me to do.”
He has toured much of the world with the choir, singing in the United States and Europe as well as in Australia and Africa.
The most amazing performance in Jiyane’s mind was, without any doubt, the choir’s 2003 show for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 AIDS foundation.
“The AIDS concert – that was done with us singing in front of Nelson Mandela,” he said. “And we were on stage with Bono, and Peter Gabriel and Queen. We sang with all those guys. At first I was nervous, but once we got going this was nothing. Having to see them and having to work with them, it was very good.”
Last month the choir won a Grammy in the world traditional music category for its album “Blessed.”
“Like, wow, what a surprise that was,” Jiyane said.
Performing in the United States is the most rewarding, perhaps because gospel music – a blend of tribal influences and American religious fervor – originated here, Jiyane said.
“America is the best, because America is where you get people that love music and people that make you feel at home. When you sing a song somebody will shout ‘Hallelujah,’ ‘Amen,’ ‘Sing it brother!’ “
American audiences also like to dance.
“When we’re performing they move! They don’t just sit down and watch, they move! And when we sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ it becomes amazing grace for real.”
Jiyane enjoys life on the road, up to a point.
“Sometimes it gets into you whereby you get to miss your family,” he said. “And I miss food from home.”
But he has no plans to leave the choir anytime soon.
“As long as God keeps on blessing me and the choir, and long as God wants me to work with the choir, I will work with the choir,” he said.
“I just want to say, people must come to a show to come and get blessed. They must come and have fun! They must come and see the South African gospel and how we praise God.”