By Daniel Katz
Bow Valley Crag & Canyon
November 27, 2015
There are few singing groups that have developed such a highly acclaimed and renowned body of work as the Soweto Gospel Choir, who boast the likes of Bono, Peter Gabriel, and Aretha Franklin among their many millions of fans.
The multi-Grammy-winning ensemble was formed in 2002, and since then have toured internationally as unofficial ambassadors of South Africa, having performed for the British Royal Family, on stage at the 81st Academy Awards, and collaborated or performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Queen.
“What we do, what we stand for, and when we get on stage… it’s always going and making sure that we fly our country’s flag high, and we also make sure that people understand where we come from,” said choirmaster and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane.
The Soweto Gospel Choir is named for Soweto, a primarily black urban area of Johannesburg, South Africa, that is an acronym for “South Western Townships”.
The 30-member ensemble blends elements of African gospel, reggae, and American popular music. They won Grammy Awards for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2007 and 2008 for their albums “Blessed” and “African Spirit”, respectively. In 2010, they won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for their contribution to composer Christoper Tin’s song “Baba Yetu”. They return to the Banff Centre to perform a Christmas show in December.
Jiyane says the choir’s main message was born from the struggle of South Africans during the times of apartheid, and is inspired by the imprisonment and resurgence of Nelson Mandela, their country’s former president.
“Our message in our music… is about joy, peace and happiness, and to never forget where you came from,” said Jiyane, who said this tour celebrates the group going strong for 13 years. “What we plan on doing on stage is to do old music, like the music that we did when we started the choir… and we also mix it with our struggle songs, to take people back to what happened before.”
Jiyane says highlights for the group include winning their first two Grammys, selling out Carnegie Hall in New York City six months in advance of their show in 2006, and performing for Mandela.
Maintaining their cultural roots is is integral to the choir’s repertoire, and they showcase their country’s vibrant musical and political legacy by including traditional African songs and others such as “Sabashiya” and “Emazweni” in their shows, two numbers which have ties to the black anti-apartheid movement. At the same time, the choir also includes spiritual standards along with well-known pop hits. When delivered with their spectacular, powerful choral vocals, the songs take on a grand new identity.
Jiyane describes the show as an “unstoppable” high-energy performance containing older and newer songs, beautiful costumes and exciting choreography.
The Soweto Gospel Choir performs in the Eric Harvie Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 13. The show begins at 4 p.m. and tickets are available on the Banff Centre website.