By Ed Condran
November 16, 2015
Robert Plant, Bono and Peter Gabriel are so iconic that their faces could be etched in rock’s version of Mount Rushmore.
Each of those Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are uncompromising and unique recording artists. Another common denominator is that each has worked with the Soweto Gospel Choir and is an unabashed fan of the South African ensemble.
“Each of those guys are surprisingly humble,” Soweto Gospel Choir and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane said while calling from Columbus, Ohio. “They are also incredibly kind and enthusiastic when it comes to our music.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir melds Jamaican reggae, American pop and traditional hymns. The potpourri results in an uncommon sound, which reaches another level thanks to the gorgeous harmonies provided by the 30-piece choir. The Soweto Gospel Choir will give two concerts Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. and 17 and 18, at the Connor Chapel of Our Lady at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.
“What we do is different,” Jiyane said. “What we try to be is fresh with the music, and our voices are so unique. But we come from a land that is different. In South Africa, we have many different languages and cultures. Due to where we come from and what we’re about, we try to challenge ourselves to sound different every time.”
For instance, the Soweto Gospel Choir’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a radical, inventive reinterpretation, which blew away Paul Simon.
“Paul was amazed,” Jiyane said. “He couldn’t believe what we did to that track. He called to tell us how impressed he is. He is a big influence on South African musicians. We all look up to what he did with his ‘Graceland’ album.”
That landmark Simon album featured the South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “That was part of our inspiration,” Jiyane said.
David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryers, a pair of choir directors, put the Soweto group together in 2003, and it has released six spiritual albums. “Grace,” the act’s 2010 release, was made during the most difficult time in the Soweto Gospel Choir’s history. Guitarist Joshua Mcineka died before the album was recorded and Mulovhedzi died just before the album was released.
“When we lost David that was such a blow,” Jiyane said. “He was like a father to us. We called him ‘papa de.’ He took us from nowhere to somewhere. Joshua was one of the eldest and he was so inspirational. After suffering through all of that, we had to dig deep. It just made us stronger and more creative.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir was moved after suffering such huge losses. “Grace,” the group’s high-water mark, includes beautiful versions of the traditional “O Nkosi Yam” and “Ngahlulele.”
The Roman Catholic and Gospel standards “Ave Maria” and “Oh! It Is Jesus” are rendered with reverence and joy. Different soloists are featured on each of the 19 tunes.
“We can do that because we have the voices,” Jiyane explained. “We have the capability to mix it up like that, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
There is no other act that sounds like the Soweto Gospel Choir. That’s why the group was asked to back Peter Gabriel when he performed “Down to Earth,” which was nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards in 2009.
Gabriel, who has been fascinated with South African music as long as Simon, raves about the Soweto Gospel Choir.
And Bono is a huge fan. “Bono was asked if he heard our choir and he said that he ‘felt our choir.’ What a cool guy.”
Plant was moved after recording the sublime Fats Domino cover “Valley of Tears” with the Soweto Gospel Choir. Plant’s subdued vocal is countered by the soaring choir. “Robert just said, ‘wow,’ after we recorded that song,” Jiyane said “He was just blown away. It’s nice that all of these legends love what we do, but the most important thing is that music fans enjoy what we do. The response has been so good.”
According to Jiyane, the group will record a new album in 2016.
“But for now we’re just going to go out and perform and sing our songs,” Jiyane said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”