Dancing and singing contribute to the soul of South Africa. And in South Africa, few other performance groups can compete with this gospel bunch.
The Soweto Gospel Choir has earned five Grammy nominations and three wins. They have performed alongside Bono, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and others.
Shimmy Jiyane is their choir master, but he began 20 years ago as a dancer with this choir from South Africa. Today he not only dances with the group of 22 performers, but choreographs their moves and sings lead, as a tenor. He’s also a founding member.
As a dancer, Jiyane has shared stages with Tina Turner and South African stars including Vicki Samson and choreographers Adele Blank, David Matamela and Debbie Rakusin, the latter two noticing Jiyane’s natural inclination toward contemporary jazz and traditional dance. Jiyane’s grasp of African dance has swelled the choir’s success.
Working with the gospel group Joyous Celebration led him to upgrade his singing voice. And he has not only kept climbing the career ladder in the choir, but also met his wife — dancer, soprano and lead singer — Phello Jiyane, there.
“We met in the (Soweto) choir in 2018. She noticed me first,” he said. “And she said, ‘Wow, he’s so handsome.'” (I heard Phello laughing in the background.)
“That (role of a lead singer) is a blessing to me on its own,” he said over the phone. The choir has about 10 lead singers, and they are selected for their individual vocal qualities as pertains to a particular song. And, since the choir’s repertoire is vast — from Sam Cooke (often called “King of Soul” ) to “Umbombela,” about a train — the styles vary. Many of the “Umbombela” lyrics are sung in a style whose dusky harmonies and volume-fluctuations suggest railcars rumbling. A listener can almost see the constraints that required Black South Africans to travel in search of work.
Wenyuku umbombela (There goes the train)
Wenyuka ekuseni (It goes in the morning)
Wenyuka umbombela (There goes the train)
We baba yangishiya (Oh, father, it’s leaving me behind)
Wenyuka wenyuka (It goes it goes)
Musa ukungishiya, mbombela (Don’t leave me behind, train)
According to Pancocojams, a blog that discusses customs of African Americans and other people of Black descent, trains were instrumental in migrant workers’ lives, as were African fathers, who were household heads and providers.
Jiyane stressed that the U.S. and South Africa share a history of prejudice against Black people.
“We didn’t forget what happened. We forgive but we don’t forget.”
After all, the choir is from the town of Soweto, where South Africa’s democratic movement’s freedom-fight began.
In 2018, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela’s centennial resulted in many celebrations. Soweto’s album “Freedom,” their sixth, was one way they paid tribute. Their characteristic harmonies, in which each singer must listen astutely not only to his or her voice but to the singers’ nearby, are thrilling. They are meant to evoke memory and faith but bring to mind much more.
Mary Mulovhedzi, soprano and dancer, designs the group’s radiant costumes, which embrace every major color group, while allowing the performers to move.
“If I were a color I would be bright pink,” Jiyane said.
If you go
WHAT: 3-time Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir
WHAT: Soweto Gospel Choir’s concert of HOPE: It’s Been a Long Time Coming, commemorating South Africa’s freedom movement and the U.S. civil rights movement performing music of the civil rights movement with works by Billie Holiday, James Brown, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Oct. 18
WHERE: Indiana University Auditorium, 1211 E. Seventh St., 812-855-1103
TICKETS: $14-$53 at https://bit.ly/3EzKaHn
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