Rip it Up Magazine
January 7, 2008
With a goal of capturing the spirit of Africa, mammoth South African group the Soweto Gospel Choir have done a brilliant job on their latest, aptly titled album African Spirit. Since the choir initially formed back in 2002, the group has attracted quite a lot of very worthy attention, both from critics and fellow musicians alike.
Born out of the ghettos of Johannesburg’s Soweto region, the choir strove to showcase the talent and unique sounds of their homeland to the world. Through the release of their albums Voices From Heaven, Blessed and African Spirit, the group has widely been heralded as one of the most exciting acts on the world music scene. In addition, they’ve garnered favourable interest from a huge cross section of western artists, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Robert Plant, Queen, Jimmy Cliff, fellow South African Johnny Clegg and, most recently, U2’s legendary Bono.
The group has already made a number of successful treks to Australia and are all set to play two shows at Festival Theatre. In light of the ensuing performances, I had a chat to one of the choir’s founding members, Shimmy Jiyane, as she called up on a chilly afternoon in New Zealand, to learn a little more about the artists behind those angelic voices…
“The choir actually was formed because not actually everybody knows about South African gospel,” Shimmy begins in her beautiful South African twang. “So the idea was to showcase the talent of South Africa and let the world know about our gospel, get to hear our gospel and how we sing, and how we put our harmonies together when it comes to gospel. We sing in 11 official languages, because we’ve got these at home so we sing in those languages, and we’ve got two djembe players in our four-piece band. So that combination on its own is something that is very unique and very nice to hear.”
In addition to the traditional gospel styles that the choir sings, they incorporate a range of elements from western music cultures, and even play a few re-interpreted western numbers. Despite the apparent multilingual complexity, the choir pulls it off brilliantly!
“It’s not that difficult. I mean, I speak seven of those languages, and there are people [in the choir] who speak 10! We learn from each other, ‘cos we’re from there and we understand everything that happens.
“It becomes very easy because we know we can learn from each other and we work as a team, and then we can come by those songs; it’s not that difficult,” she chuckles.
On African Spirit, the Soweto Gospel Choir tackle a number of western tunes and make them their own. Despite the obvious differences between styles, the choir doesn’t treat the rock‘n’roll numbers different from their own traditional numbers.
“No, we don’t approach it differently, we approach it the same as whatever we would sing in our country. At the end of the day, what we try and do is when we sing our songs, we try by all means to put an African feeling in any song we do. And we don’t like repeating whatever the other person is doing; we like doing whatever we think it to be, suitable for us, and suitable for you as a person who listens. We’ve worked with Bono for the song One and he came to us and said, ‘This is the song, I’m going to lead the song and you’re going to put in the African harmonies’. And when he came in and we did those African harmonies, he was crazy about it! When the song was done, he came in and we said, ‘Can you hear the choir?’ and he said, ‘No, I can’t hear them, I feel them!’ And we worked with Queen and they loved the way we did the songs, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – those are the people we worked with… we don’t actually go in and try and be something else, we just go in and be who we are.”
As well as being able to put their individual and unique stamp on some of these western tunes, the choir also has the opportunity to learn from the various artists with whom they collaborate.
“We learn even if it’s just a short space of time, but when we are working with those people like Bono and all them, they are legends! They’ve been there and they’ve done it. You look at their discipline and how they talk to people, their attitude towards you, whatever. Those are the things that you learn from: how to take your music seriously and how to understand what you’re singing about and all those things. That’s what we learn mostly from them.”
In addition to bringing beautiful music into the world, the Soweto Gospel Choir also does a great deal of work with South African charities to help orphaned children with AIDS.
“At each and every show, we collect money, and the money we collect, we take it to Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which is a foundation that consists of 600 sick [with AIDS] children that get no government funding. So we’re the ones that’s bringing in the money, and what we do for those kids is buy them books to go to school, we buy them clothes, we buy them food, we make sure we buy them a TV, so they can be healthy at the end of the day and they can see that somebody’s taking care of [them]. We get them to school, and for us, for the Soweto Gospel Choir, it’s like giving back to the community. We’ve seen the world and what is good, so we need to go back and say thank you to those people and at the same time, help where we can help.”