By Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
October 22, 2018
The Soweto Gospel Choir has nothing to prove and everything to share.
Since its founding in 2002, the African troupe has become a worldwide sensation known for presenting an infectious and joyous production celebrating the richness of the African culture with inspirational music rooted in faith.
From Soweto, a township in South Africa that experienced much unrest during the apartheid era, the group consists of dancers, singers and musicians, all of whom are ambassadors spreading the colorful spirit of their country — a land now full of opportunity thanks to the work of fearless leaders like Nelson Mandela.
Under the direction of Beverly Bryer, the sought-after choir is on the road 11 months a year, and on Wednesday, its Grammy Award-winning ensemble will share Mandela’s message of love, peace and happiness with the people of Houston during a performance at Jones Hall. Hosted by the Society for the Performing Arts, the performance features a mix of traditional gospel music and modern pop, sung in many of the country’s 11 official languages, as well as a special medley honoring Aretha Franklin for her contributions as both a civil rights activist and the “Queen of Soul.”
“The mood of the whole show, it’s about freedom,” said Shimmy Jiyane, a founding member who holds multiple responsibilities as choirmaster, choreographer, tenor and dancer. “We speak about the freedom that Nelson Mandela fought for, for us to be here today. We speak about his legacy.”
This legacy might best be summed up in a call to action famously made by the political leader and philanthropist: “It is in your hands to make of the world a better place.”
Their artistry not only honors those who fought oppression and injustice, it celebrates the journey to freedom and their livelihood today.
“We want to show the world that we didn’t put our heads down,” Jiyane said. “We kept our heads high, and as we kept our heads high, we want to show the world that everything is possible in life. We can walk around our country and say, ‘I’m proud to be South African.’”
Just as the country has many languages, there are also differing ethnicities, cultures and religions, all of which embrace a particular pride and energy, Jiyane said. Yet the choir finds unity in this diversity, and in setting his choreography, Jiyane finds inspiration in the differences, combining influences from each way of life with his own style of movement to create something that all audiences will understand.
“We rely on rhythm, and we rely on the drum,” he said, explaining how the instrument’s steady sound bears a feeling of assurance that one is at peace. “The drum that we play is the signal of unity, so when the drum plays, it doesn’t just play. It plays to bring harmony together. We become one world with one peace and one heart.”
As the stage lights up with activity — wide smiles, beautiful costumes and glorious harmonies — it’s apparent that the arts and the African culture are not separate entities. They are inherently one in the same.
“It’s the music that kept us going for years in South Africa,” Jiyane said. “It’s the music that groomed us to be who we are, to be strong today. Mandela said, ‘You must learn to forgive, but never forget what happened, but at the same time, you must move on and make your lives better.’ That’s why we are here.”