By: Sophie Perri
March 1, 2017
THEY have four Grammy Awards to their names, count Will Smith and Celine Dion as fans and spend their lives spreading good news around the world. South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir is a big deal, and it’s in town to perform at Royal Croquet Club until the end of March. Sophie Perri caught up with choirmaster Shimmy Jiyane and soprano Zah Zah Ngcamu.
You look great. What’s it like transporting all those costumes? Have you ever lost them?
S: I did. I lost a bag in Brazil.
Z: Once we lost the tops of the costumes and we had to improvise. The airline told us the bag went to China.
What songs are you singing at this show?
Z: We try to have some traditional hymns and also some contemporary songs people can relate to.
How do you feel when you sing gospel?
S: We feel good because we’re spreading the word of God and the message of good news. It’s what we do mostly at home.
How often are you singing to yourselves?
S: In the shower, yeah.
What songs are you liking at the moment? Which artists?
Z: Nothing in particular but for me, my favourite has always been Celine Dion. Her soul, her passion … I’ve always looked up to how she sings and how she portrays herself. When I was young, I didn’t understand anything about love, but I could hear the emotions in her songs.
Have you met her?
Z: Yes. I was pinching myself after. She was very humble. She said she loved the choir.
Did you perform for Obama?
S: We performed for Bill Clinton, after his presidency. He had two private jets and they came to pick us up.
Would you perform for Trump?
Both: Ahh …(laughs)
S: That’s a hard one. To be quite honest – I’ll say this to you. We’re performers. We’re not politicians. We do what we can do for us.
So you’d say yes but you wouldn’t be happy about it?
S: I don’t think we would.
Is it easy to sell a gospel show?
S: Yeah, it’s easy. We don’t only sing gospel, we sing different styles of music. We’ll do like Joe Cocker Have A Little Faith In Me … we don’t only concentrate on one thing.
What was your first experience of gospel music?
S: I was a kid. My mum used to sing when she was washing dishes or sweeping the floor. She’d teach me hymns to prepare me for Sunday school and we’d perform in church. Church in South Africa is like a concert. There’s a lot of dancing … so many people.
Z: My father was a pastor so singing and prayer was just part of our lives. By the time I went to church I had that foundation of singing.
Was it natural to have a good voice in your family, Zah Zah?
Z: My father’s side, most of them sang. But I remember there was a day I had to lead a song and I was scared and shaking but I was shocked because when I started singing, everyone was like ‘wow’. My voice was so strong. That’s when I realised I had a talent. I was five or six.
When were you most nervous to perform?
S: When we had to perform for Nelson Mandela. The funny thing, when we won our first Grammy award in 2007, we went to present the Grammy to him and when we started singing he was not there. When he came in he stopped and said, ‘how do you start singing without me?’ He had a good voice.
What were the Grammy Awards like?
S: Amazing. It’s flashing lights everywhere … they’re calling your name. You feel like a superstar. When you get to win it, once you get off the stage there are hundreds of journalists and rooms to go in for interviews. We also went to the Oscars in 2009.
Z: We walked the red carpet. It was awesome. We were in our traditional clothes because we knew everyone would go in their dresses and suits so we wanted to stand out. We were walking with Will Smith and Halle Barry …
S: Will Smith came up to us because he loves the choir.
You have a lot of famous fans.
S: Yes. Bono from U2, Aretha Franklin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers …
Who do you miss when you’re on tour?
Z: I miss my two children. They do wish they could travel with me but they know that mummy is travelling the world, singing.
S: I miss my mum all the time. I’m still a bachelor so I’m on my own…so when I’m gone – just because I love her so much – I miss her. Next week she’s turning 86.
Will you bring her something back from Adelaide?
S: I have to. I always bring her something. I usually get her perfume or shoes.