Unity. Love. Hope. Those are a few words to describe the Soweto Gospel Choir. Established in 2002, this South African choir has spread its beautiful and inspiring music all over the world. Since they began, the choir has won two Grammy awards, earned two #1 Billboard World Music Chart albums and became the only South African music act to perform at the Academy Awards. The choir has even performed with many renowned musicians such as Stevie Wonder, Bono, John Legend and Aretha Franklin while also appearing on shows such as “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.”
On Dec. 5, the Soweto Gospel Choir will be gracing the stage of the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts for a very anticipated performance. Prior to their Fairfield University debut, I had the privilege of interviewing choir master Shimmy Jiyane.
“The choir was formed because we wanted to celebrate the heritage of our country and also celebrate the different cultures and faith in our country,” said Jiyane as he reflected on the history of the choir, “and show the world what South Africa has and what we can challenge in music in general.”
Since then, the choir has become an inspiring group that has blended various genres. Jiyane described the choir’s music as basically traditional South African music, but not limited to.
“We sing all kinds of music,” said Jiyane. “We sing African American and spiritual music. We also have choreography and turning that into dance. We’re not doing just one genre, we’re doing different genres in our music.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir released their album, “Freedom” on Sept. 14. “Freedom” is a celebration of South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader Nelson Mandela’s centennial. Mandela was a huge supporter of the choir and one of their biggest inspirations. “The new album Freedom celebrates Mandela turning one-hundred, and also that celebrates Nelson Mandela as our icon and our first black South African president,” said Jiyane. “We celebrate what he has done for the country and what he’s instilled in terms of knowledge. What he’s instilled in the youth, fighting for the youth and their education. He built South Africa from what it was to what it stayed.”
The production of “Freedom” was not easy for the choir to put together. Besides all the hard work that goes into making album, there are also the strong ties that the members have to these songs. “It was very emotional because the songs we are singing are the songs that we sung during the time when South Africa was oppressed. Some of our family members got killed through this and when we sing those songs it brings back so much memories in the past,” said Jiyane. “It was a very difficult time to go and research about it. Even though we know the history and even though we were part of that history, but we had to go back and do the proper research so we could come up with a good song and a beautiful album.”
Jiyane hopes that listeners will get a better understanding of who the choir is and where they come from with the new songs from “Freedom.” “I want the listener to come and actually enjoy and instill the message we are talking about with Mandela’s centennial,” said Jiyane. “And to see where South Africa is today and to see the beautiful rhymes, dances, and drums that come from South Africa.” Jiyane wants audience members to join the choir on a journey about what Mandela did for his country and the history of South Africa from its oppression to the state of freedom it is now.
Since the choir started in 2002, Jiyane believes that, even though they primarily kept true to themselves, the choir has evolved in their maturity. “We never changed our sound, we still kept our sound, but the maturity and the voices, the way we articulate what we do in the studio and when we send a message through a song – it’s very much improved.”
One of the biggest challenges the choir faces, according to Jiyane, can sometimes be a language and cultural barrier. “We respect our audience very much and sometimes because we we sing in a different language that people don’t understand,” said Jiyane. “It’s become a bit of a challenge because we hope they’ll enjoy even though they don’t understand.” However, Jiyane says once the choir gets on stage, they’re confident in what they’re doing and they know the audience will enjoy it.
The Soweto Gospel choir is also very much involved in the non-governmental organization Nkosi’s Haven. Nkosi’s Haven offers care and support for mothers, children and orphans that have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. “Working with Nkosi’s Haven it’s one of our very important projects we have and it’s one of the things we pride ourselves with,” said Jiyane. “To us it’s like giving back to the community. Why it’s so important is because we’re giving kids what they need. We give the kids food, we buy them blankets, get them to school and we buy them books so that they can learn and be better people in life. So what we feel through the food and books, you feel a beautiful smile. Just a general smile. That you should be loved and we show them that love.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir is very excited to be going on tour.
“Going on tour it’s something very exciting for the choir all the time because we can’t wait to get on stage and give people the beautiful music and performance,” said Jiyane. “We also get excited because we get to go different places and meet different people. Culture exchange is very important to us so that’s why we love it so much.”
The Choir will be primarily performing songs from “Freedom.” Jiyane and the entire choir hope that this performance will be an enjoyable way to celebrate Mandela and their overall journey. The Choir is an amazing and breathtaking group that is a must-see, so try to get a seat at their moving performance. You can get tickets at the Quick Center’s website– tickets go from $50-55 ($5 for students, $35 for Quick Center Members).