by Karen Schafer
Dec. 10, 2008
Whether the Soweto Gospel Choir is singing in English or Zulu, it’s all about praising the Lord, South African style.
“We minister to the people through the people, and it does wonders,” proclaims Shimmy Jiyane, the choir’s assistant music director and choreographer. As part of its world tour, the 25-member choir will perform on Friday in the Music Center at Strathmore.
The choir will sing a handful of hymns in English including “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine,” but much of the program will be sung in six African languages. For those dreaming of hearing “Joy to the World,” the choir also plans to take on American Christmas classics as an encore.
Gospel may have originated in the U.S., but these African musicians have made it uniquely their own. Singing mostly a cappella, the choir is accompanied by a four-piece band on some songs. This is far different from the Vegas-style orchestration often found at large American gospel concerts.
And while wearing matching choir robes or costumes often is de rigueur for American choirs, the idea is unthinkable for the Soweto Gospel Choir. Instead, members dress in an array of brilliantly colored costumes representing regions of Africa.
These are just small details. In fact, “It’s all about the message and making beautiful music,” Jiyane says. Besides, when it comes to moving with the gospel beat, it’s universal. The group even will perform choreographed West African dance routines.
“We sing and dance of the spirit of Africa, which includes all of the continent,” Jiyane says.
The ebullience comes naturally, he adds, explaining that “South Africans sing at every celebration, at parties and funerals, when we are happy or sad.”
That most folks won’t be familiar or even understand the words of the African hymns hasn’t diminished the group’s power or popularity. Since its inception in 2003, the choir has performed with such luminaries as Diana Ross and the B52s.
“We’ve been lucky to work with so many stars,” Jiyane says. “Bono was quite good to us. He gave us a song to practice, and we gave it an African feeling. We were rehearsing and he came in and said ‘I can hear it. I can feel the choir, in the name of love.'”
The choir won a Grammy for its second album and is up for another this year. It earned the American Gospel Music Award for Best Choir and the Gospel Music Award for Best International Choir.
For some 30 years, the name Soweto, an abbreviation for Johannesburg’s southwest townships, became world famous for segregation and abject poverty.
Old enough to recall the horrors of apartheid, Jiyane recalls,
“My friends and I were accused of robbing a man, and the police chased us. While they were shooting at us, I hid in a [dog] kennel.”
Since the elimination of apartheid in 1994, the townships have been transformed.
“Soweto is beautiful, like Hollywood. We have seven malls and stadiums,” Jiyane points out. “Even white people live there now.”
With the political change, he adds, “Barriers have come down. We have to forgive them for what they have done. We have learned to forget.”
Now, so many years later, Jiyane is amazed by his country and the choir’s success. The group now travels the world, and has performed for Nelson Mandela and former President Bill Clinton as well as on Conan O’Brien’s talk show.
“When we come to the States, we stay proudly South African,” Jiyane notes.