Goosebumps & memories

The Soweto Gospel Choir


• When the Soweto Gospel Choir received its first Grammy in 2007, it took the coveted award home to South Africa and its biggest fan: Nelson Mandela. The highly acclaimed 52-member group performed at many of his family’s functions, including his granddaughter’s wedding and his memorial service late last year in the soccer stadium in Soweto.

“He loved our music. Anytime he could, he would come see the choir. So we wanted to present him with that award,” said choirmaster and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane. “Watching and listening to him, you got goosebumps. You don’t forget those kind of moments.”

Goosebumps and unforgettable memories are also part of the choir’s performances. A global phenomenon, they’re currently on a North American tour performing tribute concerts to Mandela and celebrating the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid. (The choir performs in Vancouver on April 13 at the QE.)

The day Mandela died, the choir dressed as employees of a mall in Pretoria and surprised shoppers with a flash mob that went viral on YouTube. The stirring rendition of Asimbonanga, written by Johnny Clegg (See “Nelson Mandela and the Power of Music, Common Ground, January, 2014), is now featured in the tour.

“Madiba was our father, motivator and leader,” added Jiyane, a tenor and founding member of the group in 2002. “He changed South Africa and the world. He continues to be our beacon of hope for what the future can bring if the past is forgiven.”

Filling stages with colour and high-energy movement, the choir performs dances of different South African tribal groups, including the high-kicking Zulu, shoulder and footwork of the Tshwana and swing-like Kofifi. Meanwhile, the singers weave nuanced harmonies into an evocative sound with melodies of African spirituals, American gospel and pop tunes. From Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House, the choir has shared stages with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bono, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

“Every song we perform is chosen because it has a powerful message and it makes us feel something, whether joyous or sad,” Jiyane continued. “Music truly is the international language. It has the ability to break down barriers and bring joy into the listener’s heart. And we want our audiences to be moved, to connect with our passion and to leave feeling inspired and uplifted.”

Choral music is a wonderful gift to receive, even better to give, with benefits beyond other human activities. It expresses emotion better than language and has a spiritual dimension that reverberates through time, in and out of churches. Group singing communicates other cultures and eras more effectively than history books and courses. Madrigals take us to Renaissance England, spirituals to the experience of Black Americans and Africans.

However, recent research is uncovering unimagined health benefits in the worldwide rise of choirs. Chorus America estimates that 32.5 million adults sing in choirs south of the border, up 10 million over the past six years. Watch for an upcoming feature on community choirs in Common Ground.

Don’t deny yourself the personal joy experienced by the Soweto Gospel Choir. The BC Choral Federation is the umbrella group for more than 300 choirs here. The website has everything you need to know choir-wise. Chorfest, the federation’s flagship event, is in Vancouver May 2-4.

April 8: For those who want to learn more about another African example of healing, the School of Community & Social Justice is staging a one-day course in New Westminster: “Trauma, Reconciliation and Peacemaking After Mass-Violence: Learning From Rwanda. It includes storytelling and music. Visit Search for the School of Community & Social Justice and then click on Special Events.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

photo © Simonemillward

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