By Michael Rydzynski
Los Angeles Times
September 27, 2018
In honor of Nelson Mandela, the Soweto Gospel Choir plans to sing songs of freedom Oct. 6 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
“This program was put together to honor the freedom fighters during the time of struggle in South Africa,” said Shimmy Jiyane, choir master of the Soweto Gospel Choir, which will perform a cappella in observance of Mandela’s centennial (1918-2013) as part of the Barclay’s World Stages Series.
Largely through Mandela’s activism and sacrifice, as well as those of other freedom fighters, South Africa dismantled apartheid and elected him its first black president, serving from 1994-99.
“We chose songs that our parents sang every day to get them through the very difficult times of apartheid,” Jiyane said. “We also have songs of celebration for the life we now have because of the terrible hardships they had to endure for freedom and future generations of South Africans.”
The choir’s connection to Mandela was made even stronger after winning its first Grammy Award in 2007 for its second CD, “Blessed,” in the Best Traditional World Music category.
“The first Grammy we won was amazing,” Jiyane said, “and when we got home, the first person we showed it to was Nelson Mandela. The joy and pride we all felt was indescribable. This was a way of giving back to someone who had sacrificed his life for all us (black) South Africans.”
The following year, the group won its second Grammy, in the same category, for “African Spirit,” its third CD, and a 2011 Emmy Award (in collaboration with U2) for the 2010 FIFA World Cup music promos on ESPN.
Singing a mix of traditional and contemporary gospel and modern pop, the Soweto Gospel Choir — based in Johannesburg’s South Western Townships (SoWeTo) — tours six months a year, giving 150 performances in some 15 countries. The Irvine performance is part of an intensive North American trek.
“Being away from our families is the most difficult part of touring,” said Jiyane, who sang in the choir before becoming choir master a dozen years ago.
Singing songs ingrained in them their whole lives doesn’t mean they go about it mechanically.
“When we sing, we always do it from the heart,” he said. “We stand aside as individuals and let the true essence of the music come through. The tradition of South African gospel is in our beings, we have heard it from the time of conception, to birth, to life with its ups and downs, until the time we die. It’s part of our souls.”
Jiyane acknowledged that the songs affect different people different ways — and that’s just fine.
“Whenever I sing, it takes me to another place beyond everyday life,” he said. “It’s my way of celebrating life and giving thanks.
“The audience feels the love through our music. It is very emotive for them. Many people cry with the simple joy and beauty of the music. It helps them go through whatever is happening in their lives at that moment. We want their hearts to fly.”