February 28, 2014
The Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa—which has performed with everyone from Bono and Diana Ross to Josh Groban and John Legend, and won an Emmy and two Grammys—is touring North America through mid-April, honoring the legacy of the late South African president, Nelson Mandela.
Choir master and choreographer Shimmy Jiyane said the tour was paying tribute to Mandela by dedicating its performance to him of Johnny Clegg’s freedom song, “Asimbonanga,” written about Mandela when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, and of the South African national anthem.
The choir also is performing choreography by Jiyane, inspired by South Africa’s heritage and traditions. Jiyane said the dances come from different South African tribal groups, including the Zulu, Tshwana and Kofifi; the Zulu dance is recognizable for its high kicks, the Tshwana dancing includes shoulder and footwork, and Kofifi dancing is similar to swing dancing.
The Soweto Gospel Choir performs songs and dances inspired by traditions of various tribal groups in South Africa.
The choir’s tour, which is bringing it to 37 cities and is its fifth inj North America, also marks the release of its new CD, “Divine Decade,” celebrating its first ten years.
The CD opens with an address from the choir’s patron, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and features collaborations with guest artists like U2, Robert Plant, The Soil, Clegg and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Beverly Bryer, the choir’s director, said the music on the new CD is not only African gospel music, but also contemporary popular music, rock and traditional African music.
Formed in late 2002, the choir won a Grammy for best traditional world music in 2006 for its CD “Blessed,” and in 2007 for its CD “African Spirit.” Its members were the first South African artists to perform at the Academy Awards, which they did in 2009, when they sang “Down to Earth” with John Legend.
The choir received a Sports Emmy Award in 2011 for ESPN ’s promotional campaign, with which it collaborated with Bono, for the 2010 World Cup. And it performed at the World Cup kick-off concert in Soweto in 2010 with the Black-Eyed Peas, Shakira, Angelique Kidjo and Legend.
Bryer said the choir was one of Mandela’s favorites; it performed at many of his family’s functions, including his granddaughter’s wedding. It also performed at a memorial service for him on December 10, 2013, in the soccer stadium in Soweto.
Choir members are all South African, three-quarters from Soweto, the black township outside of Johannesburg. The choir also runs its own AIDS orphans’ foundation, Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which supports families and organizations in Soweto that receive little or no help from the South African government.