The Soweto Gospel Choir has grown from a seed dream into a worldwide phenomenon during its 20-year history. Started in 2002, the group today holds three Grammys (among other awards), has been heralded by none other than Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey, and operates successful philanthropic initiatives while actively touring internationally. In 2022, with the singers midway through a 50-city North American tour promoting their new CD, Hope, released in September on Shanachie Entertainment, the odyssey seems nothing short of remarkable.
“So much has happened to the choir and to this industry,” says choirmaster Shimmy Jiyane. “It’s been a great journey of trials and tribulations. Lessons have been learned and maturity gained. It is a blessing in how God has looked after us and how the choir has had faith in the Lord. We’ve now come up with our eighth album. We’ve shown so much to the world of the beauty of South African music, showcased the power of the music. We have come to the stage and been the great ambassadors of South Africa. How does that feel? It feels great. When we stand there, we know where we come from, who we are, what we represent. Our different faiths and cultures come through, and we stand and are proud South Africans.”
The 17-member choir and a powerful percussion section arrive in California with performances at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts in Northridge (Oct. 29) and at Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus (Nov. 5). The new album includes American civil rights anthems, songs from the anti-apartheid movement, and classic songs. For this tour, the choir performs in English and in five of South Africa’s 11 official languages: Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, and Tswana.
The choir lost a founder, its general manager, and a beloved member when Mulalo Mulovhedzi died in January of this year. “It came as a shock to us,” says Jiyane. “The choir was so sad, and even today we mourn him. Even before that, when we couldn’t travel in the world, when COVID started killing people, we knew we had to bring back hope to the people. Music had to come and do the same things it did back when apartheid was killing people or when Black Americans were being killed during the civil rights movement. We chose songs like ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ ‘The Living Years,’ ‘Heaven Help Us All,’ ‘Amen.’ Songs that encourage you to stand up, go out, live life to its fullest. Life is short. You have to be happy, have joy, peace. You must think you can do anything.”
The album’s third track, “Jo Lefifi,” could stand as a model for a key, treasurable feature of the choir. The song’s balance and wholeness is achieved not so much by voices coached into conformity as it is by allowing a variety of textures, timbres, and articulations to be heard in the voices of individual choir members and even in the ensemble singing. Distinctly different, the singers nonetheless leave the impression of a collective sound that is undeniably synchronized, appears unshakable, and simultaneously expresses universality and individuality.
“The rawness is our secret weapon,” says Jiyane. “How we incorporate all of that variety is how we blend. You know, some of our members read music; some listen to music and learn it by ear. In this album you hear how the choir has matured. In ‘Jo Lefifi,’ Thabiso Molefe was crying as he was singing this song that speaks about how God can help us. It speaks to how the world has turned around and is dark. We spoke on this whole album of how we felt during COVID. We lost our parents, sisters and brothers, friends. We poured out how we felt during those two tough years. In ‘Jo Lefifi,’ we are singing a prayer, crying, ‘Oh, Lord, what darkness we have in the world. How will you take us out of people dying, sick, losing jobs?’”
Jiyane came originally to the choir as a dancer — he now is also a lead tenor and serves as the choreographer for the group. Asked about the ways in which African dance is incorporated in performances, he says, “African Dance is very broad, including both North and South African dance, and so mainly we go to the South African dance that comes from many different tribes. With the Zulu dance, it’s more of the warrior dance. Then there is the smooth dance of Pedi. In all, it’s the footwork and the formations that show the cultures. The Pedi dance is the footwork and how the body moves [in response to and in coordination with the footwork]. Then there’s the high kicks with the Zulu. There’s always hard stomping on the ground, weighted-ness. The formations are circles and diagonals. There are mainly four dances, so you work different ways for how the musicians enter and exit and how they move across the full stage.”