October 30, 2008
By Tony Montague
When members of the Soweto Gospel Choir break into dance during their vocal performance, it’s not attention-grabbing showmanship. Movement has long accompanied singing in the churches of South Africa’s black communities, according to Shimmy Jiyane, the ensemble’s leader and choreographer.
“Each church has developed its own style,” he says, reached in Evanston, Illinois, where the 27-member touring choir is performing. “You will never see people in my country just standing as they sing. But the songs aren’t choreographed. Someone starts a step and the others follow. And there’s usually a drum providing the rhythm, because it helps to bring unity and peace. The drumbeat speaks directly to your heart and your soul.”
Since forming six years ago in Johannesburg’s South Western Townships (Soweto), the choir has played sold-out shows at venues from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall, thrilling audiences with its exuberant voices and resonant harmonies. The repertoire consists mainly of chants, spirituals, and hymns sung in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages. There’s also a selection of uplifting popular songs, like Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You”, both of which feature on the SGC’s recently released fourth album, Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre.
The venue for the new recording was apt. Mandela, South Africa’s 90-year-old former president, is both a fan and an active supporter of the choir. “Every time there’s a special occasion, like his birthday, we’re invited by him to sing,” says Jiyane. “When we won Grammy awards for our two previous albums, Blessed and African Spirit, we took them to him because he’s such an inspiration for us. Whatever we do, it’s for him and our country. We often go to sing for the kids in his foundation [the Nelson Mandela Foundation]. He likes people who give back to the community when they’re successful.”
The choir takes a leadership role in South Africa’s struggle against AIDS. After every performance Jiyane and his colleagues collect donations to Nkosi’s Haven, an orphanage they helped set up for children who are HIV-positive or suffering from the full-blown disease. To date they’ve raised over $1 million. “There’s little government assistance for these kids, so we try to ensure they’re taken care of,” explains Jiyane. “We buy them clothes, food, books, and even computers, as well as providing a home.”
The ensemble—which comes to the Chandos Pattison Auditorium in Surrey this Saturday (November 1)—has nurtured its own close and caring community. All members are treated as equals, and everyone gets a solo spot at some point in the show.
“That provides a strong incentive to work hard and improve yourself,” says Jiyane. “We don’t have people with an attitude; we’re a team. And I think people love us because we’ve never put on airs, or pretended to be anything other than what we are. We stick to our roots and perform to change people’s lives, to make them happy, and to praise God. That’s what keeps us going. We sing and we dance and we play out of love—everything we do comes from the heart.”