February 26, 2014
Beautiful music doesn’t always come from beautiful places. In fact, much of the time, the opposite is true.
Powerful, even world-changing music tends to come from hard places, from the red-light districts of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, to the burned-out tower blocks of the South Bronx in the early ’80s.
Soweto is a famous neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa — formerly a segregated ghetto under the apartheid regime and a hotbed of resistance to it. It’s a crowded, sprawling, dangerous place, home to shocking poverty and shantytowns, as well as the family home of Nelson Mandela. Lately, it has seen an upswing of investment, and crime has dropped, but it still has a reputation as a hard place.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was born in the Soweto slums, and draws most of its singing talent and inspiration from there. Singing is simply part of the culture in Soweto, and it played an outsized, utterly unique role in toppling the apartheid government, as seen in the excellent documentary “Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir will be performing Feb. 27 at the Byham Theater. The choir is celebrating its 10th anniversary with tour, billed as “A Musical Celebration of its Rainbow Nation and the Life of Nelson Mandela.”
Choir director Shimmy Jiyane says South Africa’s exceptionally colorful, energetic, impassioned version of gospel music is simply part of the national character.
“Like everywhere in the world, we believe in one God, we praise one God,” Jiyane says. “That doesn’t change. In South Africa, what changes is the way we praise, the way we sing out. If you know where we come from as a nation, as a ‘Rainbow Nation,’ God gave people hope that one day we were going to be free. Anytime when things were happening in our country, when things were bad, we went and gathered as people. We prayed and we sang, and we worshipped God.”
Though it has collaborated with musical icons like U2, Robert Plant and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Soweto Gospel Choir also has had more than a glancing brush with several figures of world-historical importance.
“We had a very strong relationship with Nelson Mandela,” Jiyane says. “When we won our first Grammy award in 2007, we went and presented the Grammy award to him.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivers the inspirational intro to the new album, “Divine Decade.”
“He’s our mentor,” Jiyane says. “He’s someone that we rely on, and work with.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir isn’t afraid to bridge the secular/spiritual divide that many gospel groups refuse to cross. Secular songs they’ve recorded include The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and Sara McLachlan’s “Angel.”
“When it comes to the choir, we do music that has a very strong message,” Jiyane says. “We do music that gives people hope.”