By Tony Sauro
April 1, 2010
The brightly beaming faces say it all.
“When we perform at home, people go crazy,” said Shimmy Jiyane, an original member of South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir. “When we performed in Oakland, people were just going crazy, too. Really crazy.
“It’s the uniqueness of the way we put our songs, the colors, the beautiful voices and people on stage looking so happy, all with big smiles on their faces.”
Jiyane and his 26-member group – who’ve performed for Nelson Mandela on his birthday and will sing their country’s national anthem during opening ceremonies for the 2010 World Cup on June 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa – light up Tracy’s Grand Theatre Center for the Arts on Saturday night.
The Grammy Award-winning chorus, formed eight years ago, is making its sixth tour of the United States. The 40-city North American itinerary included that exciting March 27 performance at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and concludes April 12 in Austin, Texas.
“It’s beautiful,” Jiyane, 36, said during a phone conversation as his group bused from San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea on Tuesday. “The country is just beautiful. We love the people, and the people love us. We’re always looking forward to our American tours.”
Jiyane, trained as a dancer, was a member of Joyous Celebration and a freelance dancer before joining the Soweto Gospel Choir in his hometown of Soweto (Southwestern Townships), an urban area of Johannesburg.
Jiyane, the choir’s choreographer and a dancer, said its goal is to help realize a mission expressed in the towering tradition of Mandela, 91, the former president (1994-99) and Nobel Peace Prize winner (1993) who spent 27 years in prison during the struggle to eliminate apartheid in South Africa.
“He’s the man who made us to be where we’re at now,” said Jiyane, whose often-honored choir also sings for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. “He opened our ties to the people of the world. He’s the man who made people understand everybody is one. We are one. He’s done so much for our country. Look, we have the World Cup now.”
South Africa is hosting the 32-nation Fédération Internationale de Football Association World Cup soccer tournament (June 6-July 11) for the first time in its history.
Jiyane, whose group performs its vocals – many of them a cappella – in six of the 11 languages spoken in South Africa (including Zulu, English, Xhosa, Sotho, Afrikaans), also credits the majestic Ladysmith Black Mambazo with taking the country’s emotionally inspiring music to the world.
“Oh, we haven’t worked with them,” Jiyane said of the nine-man a cappella group from Ladysmith, South Africa, that’s marking its 50th anniversary this year. “We know them and have met them. They have led the way for us. They went all over the world and showcased the talent of our people already.”
Unlike the Shabalala family’s masterful Ladysmith group, Jiyane’s choir emphasizes gospel music capturing the soul and spirit that enabled black South Africans to survive apartheid. Its 52 members – the choir tours in two alignments of 26 – are recruited from Soweto churches.
The choir, formed in 2002 by Andrew Kay, David Vigo, Clifford Hocking, Beverly Bryer and David Mulovhedzi, emphasizes lush harmonies, spirited rhythms, percussion and a cappella vocals – exemplifying what it calls the “most evocative sounds on Earth” and the “very best the world has to offer in this art form.”
Two of its recordings – “Blessed” (2007) and “African Spirit” (2008) – won Grammy Awards in the traditional world music category. The choir has released five CDs and two DVDS, including “Live at the Nelson Mandela Theatre” (2008). “Grace,” its newest recording, was issued Jan. 26.
During the 2009 Academy Awards, the choir backed up American soul singer John Legend on “Down to Earth,” a collaboration with England’s Peter Gabriel that was nominated as best song (from the movie “WALL-E”).
The choir, which tours for 10 months each year, also has performed for Bishop Desmond Tutu on his 75th birthday and for Oprah Winfrey, appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” opened for Los Angeles’ Red Hot Chili Peppers in Germany and performed in most of the world’s major venues. Ecstatic audiences and reviews tend to be the typical reaction.
The choir members also operate Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, a foundation for AIDS orphans, and have contributed in excess of $500,000 to support impoverished individuals and families in their homeland.
They also sing with special affection for Mulovhedzi, who died at age 68 from cancer in September.
“He was our pillar of strength,” Jiyane said. “It’s him through whom the chorus is here. He’s the main man when talking about the chorus. He taught us a lot. His death came as a shock. The choir couldn’t take it. We were in Europe when he died. Every time we perform, we still remember him.”
Jiyane’s group performs with a four-piece band with two djembes (drums) and performs in brightly colored traditional apparel designed and produced in Johannesburg.
“Every color on stage represents the colors, traditions and faiths in our country,” Jiyane said. “All the different cultural traditions, we try to mix into our shows.”
That mix always includes smiles of supreme pride and joy.