By Steve Wildsmith
The Daily Times
January 18, 2012
It’s a chorus of voices that transcends skin color, language barrier, cultural divide.
The members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, which comes to East Tennessee next week, may be from Africa, and the members may sing in six of the 11 official languages of their native land, but the emotion behind every song is undeniable.
It’s the sound of primal joy, lifted from grateful hearts and extended to touch the hearts of those in attendance. It’s the purity of grateful souls reverberating with love for one God. It’s the call to a brotherhood of one people, joined in spirit and united in peace.
For singer and dancer Shimmy Jiyane, who has been with the choir since its inception in 2002, a performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir is less of a performance and more like a worship service — for both the audience members and those on the stage.
“In South Africa, we’ve got different cultures (and) we’ve got 11 official languages,” he told The Daily Times last week during a phone interview to his home in South Africa. “In our show, we sing in six of those. But those languages, those cultures, they can touch souls all over the world. We in South Africa, when it comes to rhythm, that’s what we master. That’s what we love.
“But whatever that we do, we try to make sure it reaches someone who is there. That’s why, when you come to our shows, you’ll see the beautiful smiles, you’ll see the colorful costumes and you’ll hear this beautiful music from this choir. When you’re sitting there and you’re hearing those voices, they’re going to reach out to you.”
Music has reached out to Jiyane since his childhood. He started out playing soccer but after an injury, he found himself losing interest in the sport. He was athletic and nimble, and when he happened to see a Michael Jackson video, he knew immediately that he wanted to dance.
He was adept at the art form and soon became a member of Vusa Dance Company’s “African Moves” troupe, which performed across the continent and around the Pacific. Sold-out tours of Australia led to an introduction to David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, two choir directors looking to put together an ensemble that would blend African gospel, Negro spirituals, reggae and American popular music into a performance that was celebratory in nature and paid homage to Africa — specifically South Africa, from which the choir drew its name. (Soweto is the name of several poor and working-class neighborhoods of the city of Johannesburg).
Initially, Jiyane was brought into the choir for his dancing skills, but the organizers encouraged him to sing — and they nurtured the development of his sweet tenor, he said.
“Singing is another God-given talent that I didn’t know about, and it just came in when I joined the choir,” he said.
Soweto Gospel Choir released its debut album, “Voices of Heaven,” in December 2002; within three weeks of its U.S. release, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard World Music chart. Such success out of the gate has been typical of the choir’s accolades over the years — from appearances on morning and late-night talk shows to Grammy Awards (Best Traditional World Music Album in 2007 and 2008 for the CDs “Blessed” and “African Spirit,” respectively) to concerts opening for bands from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to U2, the Soweto Gospel Choir has touched hearts around the world.
“The show that we’re going to be doing in America, it’s called ‘African Grace,’ and we are celebrating all of our successes as a choir and thanking God for all of the blessings he has given us,” Jiyane said. “We’ve gotten Grammys, we’ve worked with so many legends in the business — Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, U2, Beyonce — so we’re celebrating those successes and saying, ‘Thank you, father.’”
According to Jiyane, performing with such celebrities as Bono was a blessing, but he reserves the biggest honor in his own heart for the times he and the choir have been able to perform for former South African President — and political prisoner — Nelson Mandela.
“It was mind-blowing,” Jiyane said. “Nelson Mandela is an icon. Every time you meet him, you just feel powerful yourself. We call him ‘Our Father,’ because of how he fought for us. It means a lot to us, and every time we see him, we remember what he’s been through so we can be where we are today. We remember where we come from as a choir and as a nation of South Africans, and every time we go on stage, he’s always with us.”