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Sheer Joy, Exhilaration, and Inspiration: A Night With the Soweto Gospel Choir at Wharton Center

Strength, unity, pride, exuberance, ENERGY…these are just a few words that represent the magnetic spirit of the Soweto Gospel Choir. The two-time Grammy Award-winning South African choir has been sharing their uplifting performances across the globe for nearly two decades! Get ready to feel exhilarated, uplifted and inspired as the choir takes the stage at Wharton Center on November 18th, 2018, at 6:30 p.m.

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The music and singing of the Soweto Gospel Choir encompasses multiple styles and genres and brings an excitement and uniqueness to the stage. Although the choir sings in six of South Africa’s eleven official languages, it reaches across all cultures, language barriers, and beliefs to bring a message of love, unity, and hope. Their unique style of African Gospel and traditional hymns, along with musical inspirations from Jamaican reggae, American pop and other exhilarating sounds has been described by Billboard as “absolutely thrilling”. Their uplifting performance “Songs of the Free” gives a heartfelt tribute to Nelson Mandela, the father of their Nation, in celebration of the centennial of his birth. You will find yourself dancing, celebrating, singing, and in complete awe of the inspirational power of African Gospel music.

I had the privilege of speaking with one of the founding members of the Soweto Gospel Choir, Shimmy Jiyane. Shimmy plays many roles in the choir including choreographer, choir master, tenor singer and dancer. In talking to Shimmy I immediately connected with his pure excitement, passion and devotion to spreading the choir’s message across the world. He is as kind and inspirational as he is talented and it was a tremendous honor to hear what he had to say about the beginnings of the choir, their inspiration, and what keeps them centered while they are traveling the world.

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Can you tell me a little about the beginnings of the Soweto Gospel Choir? How did it get it’s start?

The choir started in 2002, and when the choir started they met Mr.David Mulovhedzi, who is late now, but Mr. Mulovhedzi was the founder of the Soweto Gospel Choir. He started it by having auditions and people came in numbers for those auditions. South Africa is one of those places where every raw talent and the biggest talent that you can get in South Africa get together and showcase their craft. So they went there and they were wowed by the talent. And Mr. Mulovhedzi was there, and he was like, “Ok let’s open up a choir and we will hold auditions” and a lot of people went to the auditions. We are called Soweto Gospel Choir because it comes from Soweto, because they wanted to celebrate the culture and the heritage, of South Africa and also the richness that Soweto comes with. 

Shimmy you also have quite an impressive background as a dancer and an amazing singer. What are some of your own personal influences? Where do you draw your inspiration from?

My inspiration comes from my family. My dad used to be a dancer and a singer. So that’s originally where it comes from. But, I also watched a lot of videos. One of my good friends [the recording cut out here for a minute but, in our interview, he spoke about a good friend who also influenced him]

When listening to the music of the Soweto Gospel Choir there is such a wonderful mix of excitement and emotions. What do you feel is the choir’s primary objective when performing? When you’re done with a performance, what makes you say “that was a great night!”?

What makes me say, that was a great performance is when I see people smiling. When I see people singing along with us, even when they don’t understand what we say, but they can still scream, and shout and put their hands up. When I see people sing out loud and, you know, with joy and happiness, that’s when I think we’ve done a good job. That’s the feeling that I always get and that always drives me to get on stage the next day because I know somewhere, somehow people come to us and they are not doing well, some of them are emotional, but then they get there and get out and they realize “this is what I am here for joy, peace, and happiness”. I believe music is food for the soul and part of feeding the soul is what Soweto Gospel choir does, and it is what we strive for…to make sure that people are fulfilled.

And that leads really well into my next question. When I am listening to the music myself there is a lot I do not understand in terms of language, but I am still drawn to the songs emotionally. Why do you think the choir has had so much success in breaking through these language barriers and reaching so many people around the world?

You know, I think that the uniqueness that comes with the Soweto Gospel Choir is that we are made up of raw talent, it’s not a trained talent, it’s talent that we get from around the streets of Soweto. Then you give them a song and they’re learning by ear, and it is a talent that they were BORN with. Most of us never went to music school. When you get that and you get the drums that we play with, they’re the drums of Africa, and a cappella and drums go together. And the drum of Africa, when it’s touched, sends a message of peace and harmony. I think that’s one of the things that Soweto Gospel Choir brings. And you have to understand that in South Africa we have eleven languages and in our show we sing in six of those, and you can imagine all of those languages being sung in a show and you just take it in and you feel it. That’s what gives people a taste of good music, something that is very fresh. Also, it’s not only that, but the beautiful colors that we have on stage when it comes to our costumes, the dancing, you know,  and the energy that the choir comes with on stage. Also, the beautiful smiles that you see. Those are genuine, beautiful smiles. You see a choir that is proud to be standing there and giving people what they deserve to hear.

I know when you are a Christian and trying to spread the gospel there are a lot of things, while traveling, that you are exposed to. What do you do personally, or the choir collectively, to stay centered and focused while on tour?

What we do is we always remember prayer. It’s something we come with from South Africa and it’s something we are taught about from our families. My mother taught me that prayer always comes first. When you wake up in the morning you say grace and you thank God for they day he has given you. So that’s what we do first, and that’s what keeps us together. The second thing is that we know why we are here and we know where we come from . We don’t come from a good environment and everything. We work hard to be here. When we went to auditions people came in and they were looking for a break…like their dreams have come true. They see those dreams and say, “OK you’re going to go sing for the world, you’re going to showcase your talent to the world”. So just reminding ourselves is something that we do and we don’t forget where we came from. And our families at home are praying for us, and these are the people that we are representing. We are representing South Africa and we want to represent our country at the highest level of good performances. That’s what drives us all the time. When we get on that stage, we pride ourselves with our culture, we pride ourselves with our roots, and we get there and just want to give people our best.

So I understand that, as a choir, you have a charity that you support and work very closely with. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, the charity that we donate to is called Nkosi’s Haven. It is our own charity that we opened up when we started the choir in 2002. We collect money to help Aids/HIV orphans and also children with mothers who are infected. We collect money, we buy food, clothes, blankets, we buy TV sets for them to enjoy. It is a way to give back to the community. We love to give back and we know we are helping somebody and someone is smiling. 

(If you would like to read more about this fantastic charity please visit Nkosi’s Haven website here. “Nkosi’s Haven is named after Nkosi Johnson, the young AIDS activist who passed away on International Children’s Day on June 1st2001, who dearly wanted a facility that would care for the mom and her child.  He had been separated from his mom because of the HIV diagnosis and he never wanted that to happen to any other child.  He also wanted HIV positive people to be cared for without discrimination or prejudice.” There will also be an opportunity at the performance on Sunday night to show your support.)

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. We are really looking forward to seeing the show Sunday night!

Come and join us on Sunday November 18th at Wharton Center for a unique and uplifting experience with the Soweto Gospel Choir! You will not want to miss their infections, heartfelt, and exciting performance as they bring a taste of South African Gospel to the Greater Lansing area.

It is not too late to get your tickets!

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