The famous Soweto Gospel Choir has the power to transform the lives of its members, as choir director Shimmy Jiyane tells Julie Houghton.
Soweto Gospel Choir (SGC) has won more accolades than any other choir in the world—four Grammy Awards (two in its own right and two collaborating with other artists), an Emmy Award for its work with Bono and U2, and an Academy Award nomination for its collaboration with Peter Gabriel on the Disney Pixar film Wall E.
This is all the more remarkable because SGC isn’t just a musical project, it’s a social phenomenon that enables its members to escape the cycle of poverty that entraps so many people across Africa.
SGC is a stark reminder that the power of creativity and performance can transform lives. And it’s surely no coincidence that its 21 members currently touring Australia ascribe their talent for survival through singing to their faith in God.
Leading SGC on the current ‘Faith’ concert tour of Australia is choir master, choreographer, tenor and dancer Shimmy Jiyane, who was a founding member of SGC back in 2002.
Shimmy’s background was as a trained dancer, but he started singing when he joined the choir and has progressed to the level of choir director through the past 14 years.
Shimmy is keen to tell Warcry of the importance of bringing the choir members’ Christian faith to their audiences whenever they tour.
‘Faith and Christianity are what bring us together as the choir, because what we do onstage is not only performing, but also ministering and praising God—we bring our audience to “church” (our stage) and let them know that God is alive,’ Shimmy says.
Unlike many religious choirs, if you want to sing with the SGC you have to be able to simultaneously sing and move, because SGC prides itself on being a very rhythmic choir.
Their lush and joyful sound has electrified audiences across the world since the 2002 release of their first album, Voices of Heaven, which quickly raced to the number one spot on Billboard’s World Music Chart.
SGC is named after its home town of Soweto, standing for South West Township, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Soweto was home to Nelson Mandela and was where major uprisings happened that eventually brought democracy to South Africa.
In more than a thousand live performances, SGC has performed for their beloved Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the British Royal Family, and presidents Clinton and Obama.
The choir’s fellow performers in recordings and performances have included Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Josh Groban.
With such success, it might be understandable if it went to the performers’ heads, but Shimmy is clear about what is really important for the singers and the difference being in the choir has made to their lives.
‘Belonging to SGC has made a huge difference to individual lives because all choir members can now feed their families, as well as have an opportunity to go all over the world and showcase our talents,’ he explains.
The choir shares its success with the local community, as they have their own charity organisation called Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which provides clothes and shelter for children and allows them to go to school. The organisation was set up to provide holistic care and support for destitute HIV/AIDS infected mothers, children, and resulting AIDS orphans and SGC takes its responsibility to give back to their community very seriously.
The transformative power over individuals’ lives that is something very close to Shimmy’s heart.
‘I’m a perfect example of how SGC transforms people—I started as a dancer but after 13 years I’m now one of the lead singers and am able to provide for my family. I also have my own house and car, and I’m so grateful,’ he tells Warcry.
Like most successful performing groups, SGC wants to have the kind of impact on their audiences that makes them remember the experience of being at a SGC concert. On the SGC website Shimmy is described as a lead tenor with a hauntingly sweet voice and he has definite ideas on what makes a good gospel singer.
‘First of all, it’s faith, and understanding what you stand for when you sing gospel. Because you are not only singing for yourself, but you are sending the message of good news to people. You have to understand what you are doing because it’s not only about having a good voice—it’s about sharing the Word,’ Shimmy says.
The 2016 Australian tour is called ‘Faith’ as an acknowledgment of the choir’s personal faith in Jesus, but also as recognition of the choir’s journey since 2002. It references a song in the current repertoire, Have a Little Faith, well-known as a song recorded by the late Joe Cocker.
SGC has come to Australia fresh from its latest triumph, scoring the Best Gospel Group award at the Trumpet Music Awards in South Africa.
So there’s only one question left to answer—would Jesus have enjoyed being a member of Soweto Gospel Choir?
Shimmy Jiyane breaks into a big grin.
‘Ooh yes!’ he agrees.
Soweto Gospel Choir performs at Sydney Opera House on 31 July, Melbourne Recital Centre on 7 August and The Joan in Penrith on 18 August. Full details of all Australian concerts at www.sowetogospelchoir.com.