By Simon Plant
March 08, 2013
IN 2003, the Soweto Gospel Choir boarded a bus for Frankston.
The then newly formed company from South Africa was on a one-off tour through Australasia and a civic centre by the bay was hosting their first-ever ticketed gig.
“Most of these kids had never had a passport before, certainly never travelled outside of Johannesburg,” producer Andrew Kay recalls.
But boundaries dissolved in an instant as their voices lifted towards heaven and an astonished Frankston Arts Centre audience was swept up in the joy of it all.
Kay says: “After Australia, they went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and sold out every seat for 32 performances. That was the lift off.”
Soweto Gospel Choir has criss-crossed the globe since then, performing for kings and presidents and ecstatic crowds in dozens of countries.
In the past year alone, they have visited Russia, Spain and the Netherlands.
This weekend, it is Melbourne’s turn as the choir swings through on a 10th anniversary tour.
But the Melbourne Recital Hall is their venue this time, not Frankston.
“Australian audiences, they love the music and relate so well to it,” says chorus master and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane.
Speaking between rehearsals, Jiyane comes across as cool and laid back but anyone who has seen this dynamic musician in action knows what a ball of energy he can be.
Does Jiyane view the choir as an ambassador for South Africa?
“Everywhere we go, they say we are ambassadors,” he says, grinning.
“So, yes we are. But we are not only showcasing one thing. We are showing different faces of our country. Like eleven different languages. In our show, we sing in six of those.”
And they are not all protest songs?
“No. We don’t chant, we sing.”
Kay, managing director of Andrew Kay & Associates, says: “The first thing this choir ever did was to rehearse for an album.
We put 32 singers together (in South Africa) and instead of putting them into a rehearsal room for a live performance, they went into a recording studio for two weeks.
They brought with them all the songs they grew up with.”
Within six months of its release, the `Voices From Heaven’ album was number one on Billboard’s world music charts.
“We never thought we’d even be together for ten years,” Jiyane admits.
But Soweto Gospel Choir has joined the ranks of South Africa’s greatest performers such as Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Heroes of western pop culture – from Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Celine Dion to Josh Groban and Peter Gabriel – have also been eager to collaborate with them.
U2’s Bono says the choir is “wickedly joyous” while Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant described his time with the company in a recording studio as “one of the most dramatic, beautiful and emotional episodes of my wondrous life in music.”
Kay has another take on the Soweto-Plant collaboration in New Orleans.
“Basically, they didn’t know who this long-haired guy was,” he says. “Every time he came up with a musical idea, he’d be contradicted by the choir!”
Shimmy Jiyane chuckles: “Robert Plant? NOW we know who he is!”