By Melissa Wilson
Special to the Toronto Star
Jan 19, 2012
They’ve won two Grammys and an Emmy, performed around the world with the likes of Bono, Céline Dion, Josh Groban and Peter Gabriel, and this year they’ll celebrate their tenth anniversary together. The Soweto Gospel Choir might actually be the most successful group you’ve never heard of.
With roots planted firmly in South Africa, the Soweto Gospel Choir is a 24-piece gospel group that performs a combination of traditional African music and contemporary tunes, all with an overwhelming dose of South African flair. The Choir’s newest show, African Grace, will be performing in Toronto for two nights only, February 24 and 25, at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. (A third Ontario show will be in Kingston at the Regina Rosen Auditorium on February 23.)
Concert-goers can expect the two-hour show to be “high-energy and carry a powerful message that is proudly South African,” according to tenor Shimmy Jiyane, the group’s musical leader and choreographer and founding member of the Choir.
It’s likely you’ve already heard the Choir without realizing it. In 2008, it collaborated with Peter Gabriel on the song Down to Earth, featured on the WALL-E soundtrack, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Movie Song. The Choir played at that year’s awards show. The Choir also performed with Akon for the song Oh, Africa, which became one of the official songs of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In 2011, they backed Josh Groban during two live shows in Sun City, South Africa.
Fittingly, the Soweto Gospel Choir’s Toronto leg of their North American tour falls directly in the middle of Black History Month, which Toronto has been celebrating since 1979. Since the purpose of Black History Month is to explore and pay tribute to the traditions and culture of African-Canadians, a stop to see the Choir would be an excellent way to extend that celebration to groups and cultures outside Canada’s borders.
“We wanted to showcase the talent we have in South Africa, and the different culture. We want to showcase the beautiful voices and how that can reflect the country,” says Jiyane. “People tend to think the whole world knows about South Africa. But they don’t.”
(The most recent mainstream image associated with South Africa might come from the 2009 Academy Award — nominated film District 9, which was actually filmed in Soweto, a poor, urban district in Johannesburg.)
The Soweto Gospel Choir has also endeavoured to use their success to aid those in need back in South Africa. In 2003, they founded Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, a foundation to provide for AIDS orphans and raise awareness internationally of the plight being faced by this community. According to Jiyane, the foundation provides clothes, food, books, computers and whatever is necessary for the children to thrive and get an education. While on tour, the Choir collects donations after shows to take back home for the foundation. “By doing that, wherever we go, we always think of those kids,” Jiyane says. Since 2003, the Choir has raised the equivalent of $1,381,339 for charity.
Charity and history aside, people should just come to enjoy good music, says Jiyane. “We’re just going to bring peace, love and happiness to Toronto.”