By Kate Reynolds and Cheryl VanBuskirk
February 17, 2010
The sweet sound of South African harmonies could be heard ringing throughout Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theatre last Saturday evening with a performance
from the Soweto Gospel Choir. Performing before a sold-out audience, the choir returned to the Annenberg after making its Philadelphia debut there in 2006.
Dedicated to “sharing the joy of faith through music with audiences around the world,” the Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in November of 2002 in downtown Johannesburg as a joint project between promoters Andrew Kay, David Vigo, and Clifford Hocking, along with executive producer/director, Beverly Bryer, and musical director, David Mulovhedzi. With the intention of producing a group that would tour the world and showcase the South African sound, the collaborators auditioned hundreds of individuals before forming the 27-member ensemble of men and women.
After only 3 short months of rehearsing, they embarked on a sold-out tour of Australia. Since then, the group has produced five CDs (winning back-to-back “Best Traditional World Music” Grammy Awards for their albums, Blessed and African Spirit), has performed with such artists as Celine Dion, Diana Ross, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2’s Bono, and Josh Groban, and has performed for the likes of Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and former South African president, Nelson Mandela.
In February 2009, the choir became the first South African group to perform at the Academy Awards with their song “Down To Earth,” written by Peter Gabriel for the animated Disney/Pixar film, WALL-E.
“We always say that it’s God’s blessing that everything is happening like this,” says Shimmy Jiyane, choirmaster and choreographer. “Everybody that’s here wants to do the best for themselves, and the best for the choir, and the best for our country.”
Soweto, an urban area of the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, is an abbreviation for South Western Townships, which refers to its origins as a Black township under South Africa’s Apartheid government. Black Africans evicted by city and state authorities and those drawn to work in the gold mines during the 19th century were accommodated in separate quarters, known as Brickfields, on the outskirts of the city.
After the Afrikaner-dominated National Party gained power and began to implement apartheid, the pace of the creation of townships, like Soweto, outside legally designated white areas increased. In South Africa’s 2001 census, Soweto was home to approximately one-third of the total population of Johannesburg.
The choir sings in 6 of South Africa’s 11 official languages which, Mr. Jiyane notes, is not that difficult a feat as most of the choir members speak at least 6 languages, with many speaking up to 8 or 9. The largest of the five predominant language groups is Zulu.
The choir’s set list provides audiences with an intricate blend of both traditional African and contemporary music, all spiritual in nature – from the pious and tribal, “Jikela Emaweni” (Fighting Sticks of Young Men), to the exuberantly joyful, “Seteng Sediba” (There Is A Well of Blood That Saves Your Soul), to the old familiar “Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” to the heartfelt and deeply moving, “Oh It Is Jesus.”
Adding to the group’s vocals are its delightfully rousing choreography, powerful mastery of percussion that provides the African tribal beat, and vibrant costumes that splash the stage with color.
Modeled after the designs of several South African tribes, the group’s costumes project the image of South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation” – an integration of many unique cultures and races.
With all of the success the Soweto Gospel Choir has seen over the past 8 years, the group remains focused on giving back to their South African community. In 2003, the choir founded Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, a foundation that responds to the plight of AIDS orphans in South Africa. As the group tours, it collects audience donations that are given to their community in Soweto to provide food, clothing, and education for the area’s children.
“We love doing that” says Jiyane. “We are doing it out of love. Every time when we’re onstage, we think about those kids. We all sing and represent them.”
The choir will have more than just funds to give the children after their trip to Philadelphia, as the group was presented with knitted blankets from Chestnut Hill’s Springside Middle School’s select choir, Musica Mundi (“Music of the World”) as part of the national Knit-a-Square project. The select choir also gave a performance in the lobby of the Annenberg that was part of a pre-show presentation along with Carol Muller, a UPenn music professor and two Soweto choir members.
As their final song for the evening, the choir drew upon its theme of creating a united spirit with the Rugby World Cup theme song, “World in Union.” The lyrics call upon the nations of the world to join together as one: “It’s the world in union/The world as one/As we climb to reach our destiny/A new age has begun.”
The song was followed by an encore performance with the gospel hit “Oh Happy Day” which had the crowd on its feet, clapping and belting along.
“When you come out of the show, you come out blessed” remarked Jiyane, “because what we do, we don’t only perform, we minister at the same time. As we minister, you look at the beauty of our country, South Africa, you look at the beauty of the costumes and the energy – and that will bring you laughter, and put a big smile on your face, and in the end, you will say ‘God is good.’”
The Soweto Gospel Choir continues its North American tour through April. For more information about the choir, visit http://www.sowetogospelchoir.com. For more information regarding the Penn Presents African Roots Series, or any of the other series showcased at the Annenberg, visit www.pennpresents.org.