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COVID-19 hit the Soweto Gospel Choir very hard, with members losing loved ones to the disease. Instead of bottling up their grief, they channeled their emotions into recording an album full of hope and launching a new North American tour in Iowa City.
The Grammy-winning South African ensemble will be returning to Hancher Auditorium on Sept. 29 with a Hancher commission and world premiere concert aptly titled, “HOPE: It’s Been a Long Time Coming.” The Hancher website says it “commemorates and celebrates South Africa’s Freedom Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.”
It also reflects joy and pays homage to the group’s homeland. The album, coming out Friday, Sept. 23, features a mix of new music and covers of familiar gospel and pop songs — including Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Al Bell’s “I’ll Take You There,” made popular by the Staple Singers.
What: Soweto Gospel Choir, with the world premiere of the Hancher commission, “HOPE: It’s Been a Long Time Coming”
Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29
Tickets: $30 to $50 adults; $10 to $40 college students and youths; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160 or 1-(800) HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu/upcoming-events
Artist website: sowetogospelchoir.com/
All of the album’s songs will be showcased at Hancher. Audience members will hear lyrics sung in English, as well as five of South Africa’s 11 official languages: Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and Tswana. All 23 singers also dance and play instruments in the high-energy musical experience, rooted in the traditions and history of their homeland, which is this ensemble’s forte.
“When they ask you, ‘Where do you come from?’ Well, being African and being South African, being proud of what you do, and being proud of the roots where you come from — that’s what gives us strength,” Choir Master Shimmy Jiyane, 39, said by phone from his home in Soweto, a township in the Johannesburg metro area.
A dancer, choreographer, lead tenor and founding member of the choir formed in 2002, Jiyane said they sing “music that everybody loves throughout the world,” performed with “passion and good intention, and ultimately, emotions.”
“When we get on the stage and go to the studio and we record albums, we take up what we have and what we grew up knowing. We never lose our roots, because we know where we come from. We come from the African continent, we come from South Africa.
“We were led by Nelson Mandela. ... He taught us we must always forgive, but never forget what happened.”
Tucked into the middle of the familiar strains of Curtis Mayfield’s “Amen” is a chorus of the Sunday school classic, “This Little Light of Mine.” That echoes the musicians’ mission to shine their light in the darkness.
“Everybody needs this little light of mine,” Jiyane said, “so let it shine for everybody. Everybody who comes to the concert can see the light and see the shining of the light, so that people can feel better and keep showing happiness.”
During times of trial, from the extremes of horrific human rights violations, apartheid’s discrimination and the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic to political and economic divisions, music can be a powerful force for unity.
“Both South Africa and America have experienced the same type of segregation and oppression. Music was and continues to be a way that the people protest and express opposition. It can express suffering and reach the soul with a message of freedom and hope like nothing else,” Jiyane said in a prepared statement about the new album and tour.
“Through the universal language of music, people are unified globally and they are healed and given hope through the power of songs.”
In speaking with The Gazette, he added: “When we do our music, we always talk about the positive things in life. We always say it’s always about peace, joy and happiness throughout the world.”
On a personal level
“Mbayi Mbayi," the first song on the album, hearkens to a dark day in Soweto’s history.
The choir rehearsed the music for “Hope” at the Mofolo Arts Centre in Soweto, within view of the route of the Soweto Youth Rising that began July 16, 1976. That day, 10,000 students united to peacefully protest the forced teaching of the Afrikaans language, a derivative of the Dutch from the area’s 18th century settlers.
According to South African History Online, when the students were fired upon with tear gas and ammunition, the protest turned into a revolt that spread across the country and into the following year.
“Many school children died,” Jiyane said in a prepared statement. “The song ‘Mbayi Mbayi,’ which opens the album, is one of the songs that was sung that day. It is a very personal song for us all, but especially for people who live in Soweto. We all have families that died on that road. We have families who went out and joined the march and they never came back.”
The choir sings another song that honors the group’s history: the Xhosa hymn “Bawo Xa Ndilahlekayo,” which means “Lord if I get lost, please lead me back to you.” It was the favorite hymn of an ensemble founder and manager, Mulalo Mulovhedzi, who died earlier this year.
Jiyane said it’s still hard for him and others in the choir to talk about their loss, but singing the hymn does bring a measure of comfort.
“Because in the new album, it’s a very personal album, it’s a very emotional album,” he said, emerging from the 2.5 years they couldn’t tour due to the pandemic. “What we went through, what we saw happening — losing friends, losing family members, losing parents to the pandemic and everything — all the feelings, all the emotions in the album are what we went through. So it’s a very personal album.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir has two groups touring, with 23 members coming to Hancher, and another group heading back to Europe in October.
All members gain admission by audition, and most of the musicians are in their 20s, but the age range continues into the 50s. They are welcome to perform as long as they’re in good health and can travel for six months, Jiyane said.
“We need big characters, big singers,” he added. “We want people that can sustain the tour — people that can be there and entertain.”
The pandemic pause was especially hard, because not only were they isolated from each other, they weren’t able to work and support their families.
“You must understand that COVID took everything from us,” Jiyane said, “because we can’t perform any concerts and can’t get paid and feed your family. So it was a bit of a roller coaster. It was so tough. We also were missing being on stage and missing the people (in the group). It was hard, but we feel God’s favor, and we made it through.”
Even when recording the album, they had to rotate in and out of the studio a few at a time. They just started performing together again in the past few months, and being all in the same room again “was really beautiful,” Jiyane said.
“It was very emotional, when you got to see your colleagues, the people that you work with all the time,” he noted. “When we last saw each other, it wasn’t nice, because we had to separate, but when we got to see each other, it was emotional.
“But you know, it taught us a lot, this COVID thing, and it also made us aware that anything can happen at any time.”
And now that they’re back spreading their joy on tour, Jiyane said they hope audiences “will be revived and re-energized and see the hope that we’re talking about.”
“You need to enjoy your life fully,” he said. “You need to enjoy life and love people. You need to be genuine so that life can go on, because there is hope at the end of the day.”
In return, audiences “give us so much energy and they give us so much support with everything that we do, because we were restricted, and we feel that was the lowest,” he said. “Sometimes they don't even know it, but they reflect that (support). That’s how they give to us, and we really embrace it.”
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