December 18, 2008
The Soweto Gospel Choir, a 52-member group formed in 2002 in the former black township, wants to carry the message of Africa to the world in the footsteps of the late Miriam Makeba.
Members of the Soweto Gospel Choir paid tribute to the Makeba on Thursday, saying her hard work paved the way for their own success.
“She’s the reason why we’re here today,” said Shimmy Jayane in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.
“She’s the reason why everybody knows about the South African music. She’s the reason why anybody buys our CDs. She worked so hard and opened up so many doors for us.”
Makeba, known to fans worldwide as “Mama Africa,” died Nov. 10 after a performance in southern Italy.
“Even now, it’s still sad when we speak about her,” said Jayane, the choir master, assistant music director and choreographer for Soweto Gospel Choir.
The choir were in Toronto Thursday as part of North American tour that includes stops in Ottawa and Huntsville, Ont.
Jayane said the choir, formed in 2002, considers itself ambassadors for South Africa, seeking to undo the negative image the country gained under apartheid.
“We travel to show the beauty of our country. The colours that you see on stage, the dancing and the energy that you see on stage — it’s all being done out of love and passion,” he said.
Jayane was one of 600 people who lined up in 2002 to get a spot in the choir. He waited all day for an audition and another week for the call that said he was in.
“I was jumping up and down,” he recalled.
Since then, the choir has performed all over the world and taken part in dozens of historic concerts, including the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday earlier this year.
They’ve worked with everyone from Bono to Diana Ross to Queen and Jimmy Cliff to raise money for their AIDS charity.
And earlier this month they earned two Grammy nominations — one for the album Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre and the second for Down to Earth, a song they performed for the Disney movie Wall-E!.
Down to Earth is a collaboration with Phil Collins, who wrote the song and turned to the Soweto Gospel choir to put the African spirit into it.
“When he came to Cape Town and he had us singing we were so excited,” Jayane said. “He came back and gave us a song and said can we put some African harmonies and … we put some harmonies and there now it’s nominated.”
The group previously won two Grammy Awards, including one in 2007 for their album Blessed.
Kevin Williams, a vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist with the choir, says members of the group feel blessed by how far they’ve come and the positive changes in their country.
Soweto, an urban area in Johannesburg that was home to some of the country’s worst violence during the apartheid era, is now a “beautiful place,” Williams said.
“Knowing the pains that our people have been through, we are prepared for our destiny. We can come out of Soweto and different places and show our hope,” he said.
“At first, when [the choir] started out we thought we’re going to start so fundamental and see where it takes us. Little did we know, but boom here we are, Grammys, performing with most of the artists that when we were young we respected and now knowing we are respected on the same level and seen at the same level as Bono,” Williams said.
The spirit of the music and the family atmosphere of the choir is uplifting, he said.
“To be honest, it’s the African spirit within us,” he said. “As Africans all we want is to show off the fruits of our faith and fruits of our lives. In our music we reach the unreachable, we touch the untouched.”