By L. Kent Wolgamott
Lincoln Journal Star
March 23, 2014
Shimmy Jiyane remembers the first time he met Nelson Mandela as clearly as if it were yesterday.
“We met him in 2007, when we won our first Grammy. We went and presented it to him,” said Jiyane, a founding member of the Soweto Gospel Choir. “He liked the music of the choir. He just loved the choir. Anytime he could he would come see the choir. We wanted to give him that award.”
Jiyane had other opportunities to be around Madiba, the affectionate name used for Mandela by the South African people.
“You sit and watch and listen to him, listen to his stories and you get goosebumps,” Jiyane said. “You don’t forget those kind of moments. Those are the moments you carry with you for the rest of your life.
Mandela died in December at age 95.
“We’re dedicating our whole show to Nelson Mandela,” Jiyane said. “For us, it is honoring him for what he has done for the country, for the world, for the African continent. We feel we need to honor him.”
The choir will bring that show to the Lied Center for Performing Arts on Tuesday.
Musically, the 45-member troupe brings African gospel mixed with American gospel and spirituals and pop, along with reggae and the diverse range of South African styles and rhythms.
“People know a little about South African music, but there are a lot of music people don’t know,” Jiyane said. “We’ve got a lot of music that we blend together.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir was created in 2002 by executive producer Beverly Bryer and David Mulovhedzi, who serves as the choir’s manager, drawing members from churches around South Africa but primarily from the township of Soweto, part of Johannesburg.
Its first U.S. recording “Voices From Heaven” went to No. 1 on the Billboard World Music charts in 2003, and the group made its first triumphant U.S. tour.
“Blessed,” the choir’s next chart-topping album, won the 2007 traditional world music Grammy, the award it presented to Mandela. The next year it won a Grammy for “African Spirit” and has been nominated two more times.
The choir’s most recent album is last year’s “Divine Decade,” a celebration of its first decade of performances that opens with an introduction by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu and includes the choir’s collaborations with artists who range from fellow South Africans Ladysmith Black Mambazo to U2.
“The first one we did was with Robert Plant,” Jiyane said. “We actually recorded that six years ago. We had wanted to do the collaborations, but it takes time. Once we got that time and the people were available, we started doing it. All the collaborations meant a lot to us because it is what we always wanted to do.”
The choir is making its third Lincoln stop on Tuesday. It performed at the Lied Center in 2007 and 2008.
“We remember Nebraska; we want to come to Nebraska,” Jiyane said. “We’re happy to be back in the U.S., but we are most happy to be going back to places we have been before, where people know us.”
So what should those who don’t know the Soweto Gospel Choir expect when they come to the Lied Center?
“They must bring their dancing shoes,” said Jiyane, who also serves as the group’s choreographer. “They must be prepared to be moved by the South African music. We’ve got a four-piece band, the choir, dancers. On stage, everything moves, nothing stands still. All the songs are vibrant. We’ve got songs that people are familiar with that they will sing to. We do songs a cappella. We want people to come and have fun with us and to feel the joy.”
That joy, Jiyane said, is derived in part from the choir’s connection with Madiba.
“The music we do is music of joy, peace and happiness, which is what Nelson Mandela wanted to see in the world,” Jiyane said. “It is definitely something we share with him, that we bring from him, from South Africa to the world.”