March 20, 2010
The accolades showered on the Soweto Gospel Choir, the 24-member touring vocal ensemble from South Africa, are impressive. To boot: two Grammy Awards; collaborations with superstars Bono, Aretha Franklin and Peter Gabriel; a performance on the Oscars; and recording “Oh Africa,” the official World Cup song, with Keri Hilson and Akon.
But for founding choir member Shimmy Jiyane (pronounced shim-mee jee-yah-knee), all that really matters is the mission.
“Every time we get on stage and sing for the audience is to give the message of God, love, hope,” the 36-year-old Jiyane says by phone from a tour stop in Seattle. “What we try and do all the time is make people smile, have them get out there and sing. We want to make their day. If people are down, when they come and see us singing about God, they forget about their problems, what happened in the morning, what happened yesterday. We want to put a beautiful smile on their faces.”
That’s not difficult considering the jubilant, inspirational nature of the group’s music. The 19 tracks on Grace, the choir’s fifth CD, provide an uplifting salve for troubled times. Most songs are sung in Zulu, but it might as well be a universal language.
“I will sing a song in Zulu, and everybody understands what I’m saying,” says Jiyane. “They see the passion in us.”
Acceptance, particularly in the U.S., has been fast for the Soweto Gospel Choir. This entity didn’t exist until November 2002. So in a scant eight years, these spiritual singers dressed in colorful, traditional outfits have attracted the attention of the Grammy Awards, winning in the best traditional world music album category for 2006’s Blessed and 2007’s African Spirit.
They’ve performed on Good Morning America, Today, Late Night and The Tonight Show. High-profile fans include Samuel L. Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Diana Ross, Carlos Santana, Robert Plant and Celine Dion.
Jiyane is humbled by such instant recognition outside of the choir’s homeland.
“It makes me feel good and proud of us,” he says. “Every time we come to America, we get so much love. We don’t get homesick. We know the people are encouraging us. They talk to us about the way of God. We are proud of people that take their time to come and see us and all the encouragement they give us.”
Such genuine worldliness, not to mention the choir’s work to raise funds for South African orphans with AIDS, caught Bono’s attention. The U2 frontman sang with the group on a cover of U2’s anthem, “One,” which is included in African Spirit.
“We never thought we would get this far and have a relationship with somebody like Bono,” says Jiyane. “Everything happens so fast. We think God is good. We are proud of ourselves as a choir. Everybody we have worked with has been a special relationship. We respect them all.” Plan your life
Soweto Gospel Choir performs at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Tickets are $19-$127, available through tickets.attpac.org or by calling 214-880-0202.