South Africa-based Soweto Gospel Choir believes music is a universal language, with audiences able to understand the message whatever the sung language.
Gospel music throughout the world, which founding choir member Shimmy Jayne speaks of as “spreading good news,” has various styles, with unifying ingredients including solo singing alternating with choral response, tight harmonies, a cappella passages, an uplifting message and an overall rousing effect.
“Ladysmith Black Mambazo made the African Gospel sound popular worldwide,” says Jiyane. “They paved the way for us.”
On Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., local audiences can relish the sounds of Soweto Gospel Choir as it brings its production “Songs of the Free” to Berklee Performance Center, via Celebrity Series of Boston. “Songs of the Free” celebrates Nelson Mandela’s centenary.
The choir is named in honor of the many South African freedom activists that hail from Soweto, including Mandela, Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Founded in 2002, the choir quickly became a musical sensation, winning awards, including an Emmy, multiple Grammys, plus Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Its home base is in South Africa, but its popularity spans the world, having shared the stage with artists from Celine Dion and Aretha Franklin to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder and U2.
Of course, I am proud of our accolades and collaborations, but most important to me is the way we use music to celebrate the cultures of varied South Africa as we travel the world. – Shimmy Jiyane
Jiyane says, “Of course, I am proud of our accolades and collaborations, but most important to me is the way we use music to celebrate the many cultures of South Africa as we travel the world.”
Jiyane, an enthusiastic soul, has been with the choir since its inception. He’s a whirlwind of activity, as he performs his duties as choir master, choreographer, tenor and dancer. He came to singing following his love of dance, which propelled him to a 10-year career as a professional dancer. He brings his dancer’s discipline to the rigor he displays as he stages the choir’s live shows and videos. Choreography adds an overall inventiveness to the thrilling production, and Jiyane, who studied ballet, jazz, tap and African dance, manages to combine the best of these styles, creating unique movement for the singers and the interspersed dances.
The choir’s sound is luscious in tone, harmonically complex and spirited in its effect.
The singers, individually and collectively, produce an easy, unforced sound, elegantly floating through the upper and lower registers without any noticeable change in vocal line. Conjure up a chorus of multiple Adeles and Bings, and you’re close to imagining this singular, lush sound.
The Choir’s sound is organic, based on the natural talent of our singers and their love of music. We learn by ear, striving to make the sound our own, coming from the heart. – Zanele Ngcamu
“The choir’s sound is organic, based on the natural talent of our singers and their love of music,” says longtime choir member Zanele Ngcamu. “We learn by ear, striving to make the sound our own, coming from the heart.”
South Africa is a country comprised of many different cultures, beliefs, languages and religions. The choir infuses African musical and dance traditions, African-American spirituals, hymns, rock and R&B, unifying the elements while touching audiences of all kinds.
Ngcamu gives her spirit to the audience, especially while singing some of her favorite tunes: “Amazing Grace” complete with lyrics by a former slave ship captain; “Wade in the Water,” a Negro spiritual; and “Hallelujah,” written by an iconic hippie. When she’s in the zone, she experiences a “moment of ministry to be able to touch someone’s life.”
There’s a word in Xhosa and Zulu—ubuntu—that means humanity, compassion, and understanding, irregardless of our different culture, language, and race. Everything we sing is infused with unbuntu. – Zanele Ngcamu
Jiyane has faith that the choir infuses feelings of freedom, love of life, and hope for peace. Ngcamu says, “There’s a word in Xhosa and Zulu — ubuntu — that means humanity, compassion and understanding, regardless of our different culture, language, and race. Everything we sing is infused with ubuntu.”
Berklee Performance Center
Dec. 7, 8 p.m.
136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston
Mass Ave T stop