By Jane Dunlap Sathe
November 29, 2018
The Daily Progress
As the centennial year of Nelson Mandela’s birth draws to a close, audience members can hear the freedom songs and gospel works he loved performed by a choir he enjoyed hearing.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s “Songs of the Free” program, which will be presented Saturday at the Paramount Theater, “celebrates the freedom South Africa has,” choirmaster and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane said.
Listeners “should keep in mind that we are going to take you on a journey — a journey where Nelson Mandela became the first president” of South Africa in 1994, Jiyane said.
Audience members also will learn more about the years Mandela spent in prison and the followers who kept the faith until he was released.
“We are ending our show with the freedom we now have in South Africa,” the tenor and founding member said. “We’ll see all the future that is coming for South Africa.”
The choir was founded in November 2002 and recorded its first album a month later. “Voices of Heaven” quickly vaulted to the top of Billboard’s World Music Chart.
Members come from church congregations in and around Soweto.
In October 2006, the choir sang at celebrations for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 75th birthday; Mandela was in the audience, as were American stars Alfre Woodard, Samuel L. Jackson and Carlos Santana. The singers have opened concerts in Germany for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recorded a song with Robert Plant for a Fats Domino tribute album to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina victims and shared stages with everyone from Chance the Rapper to Johnny Clegg to Andre Rieu. Earlier this year, the choir sang at the funeral of Mandela’s second wife, activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The concert will be “definitely educational,” Jiyane said. For example, the 20-member choir will be singing in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
“I speak eight, and some of [the singers] speak nine,” he said. “It’s very important to teach people about our culture.”
Just don’t expect it to be a dry lesson. This ensemble won the Grammy Award for best traditional world album in 2007 for “Blessed” and again in 2008 for “African Spirit.” “Down to Earth,” a collaboration with Peter Gabriel for the “Wall-E” soundtrack, picked up another Grammy — this one for best movie song.
And there’s nothing static about the ensemble’s performance style. Choreography doesn’t merely provide visual interest; movement helps the singers tell their stories.
“We love to sing, and we can’t stand still,” Jiyane said with a chuckle. “Our audience needs to know what we’re saying.”
And just in case you were wondering if it’s OK to get up and dance during the concert, “oh, yes, definitely,” he said. “You are more than welcome.”