By Rick Koster
Feb. 1, 2010
Part of the timeless strength and power of spiritual music is the comfort it affords folks – the performers as well as the audience.
Just ask members of the world renowned Soweto Gospel Choir, who perform Tuesday at the Garde Arts Center.
In 2009, two seminal members of the choir passed away: co-founder/musical director David Mulovhedzi and longtime guitarist Joshua Mcineka. It was a massive cumulative loss for the organization – just as the SGC was readying release of their latest CD, “Grace.”
“Yes, the music does offer strength,” says Shimmy Jiyane, the choir’s assistant music director and choreographer, on the phone from a tour stop in New York. “But it’s a great challenge to overcome something like this. You are recording and then you travel around the world singing, and it’s very difficult at times to deal with the loss. ‘Grace’ is an album that helps us go forward.”
In addition to spiritual material from the breadth and depth of South Africa, “Grace” includes renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Jerusalem” and arrangements of material by Simon & Garfunkel, Little Feat and Andre Crouch that astound with vision and imagination.
The Soweto Gospel Choir formed in 2002 in the titular section of Johannesburg with the idea of interpreting all manners of South African religious music as well as Deep South American gospel, Negro spirituals and even certain secular pop and reggae songs.
They sing in six different South African dialects as well as English – and the 23 voices blend in pinwheel harmonies and arrangements. Their sound is stylistically reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and is familiar to Western audiences through the sonic experiments of such pop music stars as Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.
In touring the world, the SGC has performed for Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela; won Grammy awards; appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Today Show” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”; and toured or recorded with the likes of Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, Amy Winehouse, Gabriel, Josh Groban, and Quincy Jones.
Onstage, the joyous and dense vocalizations are enriched by colorful indigenous costumes and complex choreography. Over the course of five albums – each as different and adventurous as the one before – the group has broadened their in-performance possibilitites.
“Actually, we don’t have a song in our recorded repertoire that we can’t do onstage,” Jiyane says. “That includes costumes and dance. It has to be that way because we feel the colors and sounds of Africa are powerful. We feel very proud and blessed to get to do this, so we want to be able to perform anything.”
If conceptualizing the choreography for so much varied music sounds like a tall order, Jiyane says he loves the challenge.
“It’s actually fun,” he says. “Obviously, first I listen to the music. A lot. We have so many different cultures represented in what we do – not just musically but also dance. So I try to take a little from each and every culture. I might change each one a little bit and then add something from a different culture and blend it all into something new.”
The bottom line of the music and performance suggests a commonality of spiritual power, Jinaye says, and the proof is in the faces of the audience after each Soweto Gospel Choir concert.
“We see people cry or smiling when we sing,” he says. “When we finish, we go out front and meet the audience, and it’s very amazing and gratifying to see how people have been affected. It makes us stronger, too.”