February 15, 2012
By Steve Parks
The Soweto Gospel Choir, South Africa’s biggest vocal export since Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brings songs of tears and joy to Long Island Friday night as part of just its second North American tour in the group’s 10-year history.
The two-time Grammy-winning ambassadors for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 anti-AIDS campaign — that was Mandela’s prison number during his 27-year incarceration for opposing South Africa’s apartheid government — will sing in six languages at Tilles Center.
“The choir shows its love of music and joy for life,” says director Beverly Bryer of her 26-voice ensemble that has performed with such superstars as Bono and Celine Dion. “The pure beauty and passion of their singing, through sad songs that bring the audience to tears or happy songs that leave them clapping and dancing, is something special.”
To Shimmy dancing in the aisles is inspired by dancing on stage. Shimmy Jiyane, the choir’s choreographer, is a founding member who was principally a dancer. When asked about the dance connotation of his first name, Jiyane laughed. “Yes, shimmy. It was funny when I learned the English word.” Inspired by Tina Turner and such South African stars as Vicki Samson, Jiyane, who’s also choir master, has developed into a leading tenor.
“We never knew we would get this big,” Jiyane says. “Our idea was to spread the custom of African music and dance throughout the world.” The choir is nondenominational
The choir has raised more than $4 million for the 46664 initiative, which now stretches beyond AIDS awareness to provide basic needs of South African families and children.
GEOGRAPHIC ROOTS Soweto, which derives its name from “SOuth WEstern TOwnships,” is a district within Johannesburg. But under apartheid, it was a separate ghetto municipality to which black workers from nearby gold mines were redlined. The 1976 Soweto Uprising, sparked by the government’s decision to mandate Afrikaans in schools rather than English, helped bring South Africa’s racist policies to world attention.
Soweto remains predominantly black. All 11 of South Africa’s official languages — from English to Zulu — are spoken there. Which makes the choir especially multilingual. You’ll hear languages spoken — or sung — that you might not hear in the United Nations.
One of the staples of the choir’s current tour is the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” in which the ensemble shows off its four-piece band. While many numbers are a cappella or accompanied only by drums, “Bridge” features brass and strings, too.
“Music is the world’s language,” Jiyane says.