Victoria Times Colonist
October 30, 2008
When you’re a South African touring North America, it’s nearly impossible enjoy your favourite comfort foods.
So says Shimmy Jiyane (Shim-MEE Gee-YAH-knee), who co-founded, choreographs and sings with the Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.
For instance, there’s a South African maize porridge that — believe it or not — never makes the menu at Wendy’s or Pizza Hut. Ditto for a succulent sausage, boerewors, that Jiyane enjoys back home.
“We just adjust ourselves and eat what we can eat,” he said from a tour stop in Pueblo, Colo.
However, one positive thing was born from the experience of dining out on the road. The Soweto Gospel Choir has composed a new song, Table Scene, to be performed in Victoria. During the piece, the choir sings and dances on a table outfitted with cups, glasses and plates.
“Here’s how it came about,” Jiyane said. “Every time we are in a country, and then we are hungry, we wait for our food. If the food is taking long, we start playing around on the table. Playing around with rhythms, and singing at the same time.”
Formed in 2002, the 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir (one of two ensembles that tour the globe) and its accompanying four-piece band return to this city following a performance here in 2007. Since then, the soulful, multilingual group — made up of singers culled from African church choirs — has picked up a 2008 Grammy for its album, African Spirit. The disc includes interpretations of music by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and U2 as well as traditional South African gospel.
Jiyane was one of two choir members who accepted the award earlier this year in Los Angeles on behalf of the Soweto Gospel Choir. For the South African, who had watched superstars win Grammys on TV for years, it was a dream come true.
“This year, it was my time. I went there and was so excited,” he said. “When they are calling out the names, you go, is it us? Every time you are walking on the red carpet … it’s like you have goosebumps from the time you go on. And when you get your hands on the Grammy, it feels so good.”
Growing up in Soweto (part of Johannesburg) Jiyane started off as a soccer player. He lost interest in the sport after suffering a broken leg. Instead, his attention turned to dancing after watching televised music videos. Jiyane learned to dance from South African choreographers David Matamela and Debbie Ruskin. He joined the Vusa Dance Company, and even got a chance to dance onstage with Tina Turner after she caught the troupe in performance. “She loved what we were doing. She was crazy about it,” said Jiyane, who deems Turner “a very nice person.”
At one point Jiyane had fantasized about joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Instead, he teamed up with others to create the Soweto Gospel Choir. As well as dancing and singing tenor, Jijayne creates the choir’s energetic dance routines — notable for the ankle-to-head kicks.
“The high kicks, it’s a Zulu dance, taken from the Zulu tribe. In that tribe, the men always kick high, then they hit hard on the floor,” Jiyane said. “It’s a hard thing to do.”