By Jeffrey Ougler
June 13, 2013
Shimmy Jiyane is “definitely “excited about Soweto Gospel Choir’s upcoming Canadian tour and the South African tenor is practising hard to ensure his pitch will be perfect.
But he admits his mind is not solely on music these days. Jiyane’s thoughts have also been on the fragile health of Nelson Mandela.
South Africa’s first black president is listed in serious but stable condition in a Pretoria hospital with a recurring lung infection. Media reports Thursday said Mandela’s “health continues to improve but his condition remains serious”, according to President Jacob Zuma.
Despite Mandela’s advanced age and reoccurring health problems as of late, the choir member remains optimistic.
“We know that he’s going to be fine and going to carry on for more years,” said Jiyane, of the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero.
“He’s always laughing, smiling. He’s a very inspirational man. We know the history, we know what our country went through.
“We’re very aware of what has happened.”
Indeed. Mandela spent 27 years in prison — incarceration left him particularly vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis — before being freed in 1990, upon which time he launched peacemaking efforts during the transition that saw the demise of apartheid and his own 1994 election as president.
“When you talk about Mandela in South Africa, you see the smile,” Jiyane said in a recent telephone interview from his homeland. “He didn’t only do it for South Africa, he did it for the (continent). And he’s loved all over the world.”
The name Soweto is derived from South West Townships, an area 20 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg, initially established in 1904 away from the centre of the city, to house black labourers who worked in the gold mines and other industries in the city.
In the 1950s, the apartheid government relocated more black labourers to the area as it declared the centre of Johannesburg an area for white residents only.
In 1963, the name Soweto was adopted. Since its inception, Soweto became synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement; Mandela hails from Orlando, in Soweto. When apartheid government was voted out in 1994, the majority of those living in Soweto remained.
Mandela is more than just a figure to Jiyane and his fellow Soweto Gospel Choir members. He’s been a member of the Grammy winners’ audience.
“Performing for him is not just a performance … It’s special,” Jiyane said.
“Playing for him, you make sure you do your best … We have been doing that.”
Prime performances are also what are planned for Canada as the Soweto Gospel Choir, which has raised $ 1.4 million to assist South African children affected by AIDS, returns to here as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations — albeit with a wrinkle.
The tour was slated to kick off Saturday in Thunder Bay and a Sault Ste. Marie stop was slated for Tuesday, but those shows, and others, were cancelled. Three Canadian gigs are planned for July, including a performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
According to the group’s publicist, “unforeseen circumstances” delayed the tour for two weeks, resulting in some previously announced dates having to be dropped from the schedule or rescheduled.
Along with the Thunder Bay and Sault shows, other cancelled Ontario performances include North Bay, Barrie, Kingston, Hamilton, Belleville and London, as well as New Brunswick stops in St. Stephen, Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton. A Halifax show was also spiked.
Tour producers seek to find alternate dates for concerts in Brampton, Brockville and Cambridge. Patrons holding tickets for cancelled performances can receive a full refund at the point of purchase.
Jiyane, 38, who has been with the choir since the get-go, might have performed for world figures (former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) and collaborated with music royalty (U2, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant, Celine Dion, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Peter Gabriel and Josh Grobin). But by the excitement evident in his broken English, the Canadian tour sounds like something special, too.
“We’re so excited about it … Can’t wait to start performing,” said the singer, unaware of the tour delay at the time of this interview.
Jiyane said the choir’s brand of traditional South African fare, self-composed numbers and unique takes on more modern pop offerings, proved popular during the last time around, which included stops in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.
“Everyone just loves the choir. They just love our music.”