Everyone gets a solo suited to his or her voice amid famed choir’s tightly knit team
By Tony Montague
April 5, 2012
There are 11 official languages in South Africa. That represents a steep challenge for any vocal act or artist wanting to span the country’s rainbow of cultures and nations. The Soweto Gospel Choir can sing in eight of the tongues, and audiences on its current African Grace tour will hear six of them. According to leader Shimmy Jiyane, the different languages and their phonetics alter the feel and character of the songs.
“Xhosa, the one with the clicks, is quite harsh compared to the rest,” he says, reached on his cellphone while the SGC tour bus is hurtling through Nebraska. “When you sing in Sotho, it’s very soft. And when you sing in Zulu, it’s very hard. And English is softer than any other sound. Those languages, those cultures, can touch souls all over the world.”
Certainly, the diversity of languages and genres has been no obstacle to the international success of the choir, which currently numbers 14 male and 10 female singers. Since its formation 10 years ago in Johannesburg’s South Western Townships (Soweto), the SGC has played to sold-out venues from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. The repertoire consists mainly of chants, spirituals, and hymns. There’s also a selection of uplifting popular songs such as Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You”.
“Whatever we do, we try to make sure it reaches people,” says Jiyane. “That’s why, when you come to our shows, you’ll see the big smiles and colourful costumes, and you’ll hear this beautiful music. When you’re sitting there and hearing those voices, they’re going to reach out to you.”
The SGC reaches out in other ways, too. The choir has taken a leadership role in South Africa’s struggle against AIDS, and after every performance, Jiyane and colleagues collect donations to Nkosi’s Haven, an orphanage they helped set up for children who are HIV–positive or suffering from the disease. “There’s little government assistance for these kids, so we try to ensure they’re taken care of,” explains Jiyane. “We buy them clothes, food, books, and even computers, as well as providing a home.”
The ensemble itself is a close and caring community, with all members treated as equals. Everyone gets a solo spot in the show, and the song is usually uniquely suited to them. “We listen to a person’s voice and then we take a song and try to find a person able to do that song, and we give it to them,” says Jiyane. “That provides a strong incentive to work hard and improve yourself. We don’t have people with an attitude—we’re a team.“
“I think people love us because we’ve never put on airs or pretended to be anything other than we are,” he continues. “We stick to our roots and perform to change people’s lives, to make them happy, and to praise God. That’s what keeps us going. We sing and we dance and we play out of love—everything we do comes from the heart.”
The multiple Grammy Award–winning choir has a special place in its collective heart for Nelson Mandela, now 93. South Africa’s iconic former president is a long-time supporter of the SGC, and has designated the group as ambassadors for his 46664 campaign, which includes a series of AIDS–related charity concerts.
“Every time you meet him, you just feel powerful yourself,” says Jiyane. “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.”