February 27, 2014
The Soweto Gospel Choir visited Pittsburgh for the first time Thursday as part of its three-month U.S. tour, drawing an audience of 850 to the Byham Theater, Downtown.
Shimmy Jiyane, the 24-member choir’s director and a founding member of the group, said that even if some audience members had heard them before, the performance would not have been repetitive.
“Everywhere we go, we sing the same songs,” Mr. Jiyane said, “but every time we go on stage it’s a different show and we perform for different people. We don’t take it like we’ve been doing this for years.”
The choir performed some of its popular traditional songs, including “Kae Le Kae,” the leading track on its newest album “African Grace.” One lively-choreographed performance, “Dance,” stood apart, with six members of the choir donning dance wear and stomping out an accompanying boot dance.
Point Breeze resident Elie Kihonia, who has been a fan of the choir for years, said many of the choir’s songs are relatable to American audiences
“Any time there is a program that is related to my heritage and culture, I’m here,” Mr. Kihonia, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said. “This is the second-to-last day of Black History Month, so there’s no better place to celebrate than being here supporting our brothers and sisters.”
The choir performed traditional African music as well as pop and spirituals. Mr. Jiyane said the choir is known for experimenting with different genres and giving popular songs “the Soweto Gospel Choir sound.”
That worked; the choir received standing ovations for its renditions of “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel.
It was the diversity of songs combined with strong ties to traditional cultures that made David Richardson, program director at the Center for Family Excellence’s Male Coalition, bring 15 members of his organization to the concert. The boys gathered as a group to watch the movie “Winnie Mandela” in preparation for the show.
Dashaun Dumas, 15, said he was pleasantly surprised by the choir’s traditional outfits and dance numbers.
“Instead of them telling us, they brought out some of their country’s struggles through music,” Dashaun said. “It’s really different from anything I’ve ever seen.”
The choir dedicated its performance to Nelson Mandela, the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. One song, “Libala Kuye,” was translated to the audience as meaning “We didn’t see all that Mandela went through.” Members closed the show with an a capella rendition of the South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”
Also in the audience were Fred and Ann Kenderson of Wilkinsburg, who said they had seen the choir perform on television and wanted to hear “those beautiful voices live.”