By George Basler
Shimmy Jiyane, choirmaster of the Soweto Gospel Choir, has a very clear vision about what he wants audience members to take away from the group’s performances. “I hope they take away a feeling of happiness and hope,” he said. “We want to lift people’s hearts and souls.”
That’s been the mission of the South African choir since its formation in 2002, eight years after apartheid, which upheld segregation against non-white citizens, ended in its native country. Since then, the group has performed all over the world, won three Grammy Awards and collaborated with, among others, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Bono and Stevie Wonder.
The 23-member choir — 12 women and 11 men — will bring its colorful performing style to Binghamton University Sunday (Nov. 20) for an afternoon concert in the Anderson Center. The concert is part of a 50-city North American tour that the group has undertaken to promote its latest CD, Hope, released at the end of September.
The concert will feature songs from the CD, Jiyane said, as well as anthems from the anti-apartheid movement in the first half and songs from the American civil rights movement in the second half. Pop classics by the likes of Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin are in the mix.
Many of the choir members come from churches in and around Soweto, a well-known township just outside of Johannesburg. Besides singing, they perform spirited African dances choreographed by Jiyane, who has been with the choir since its formation as a dancer, lead tenor, choirmaster and choreographer.
The last several years have been difficult ones for the choir because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jiyane said. Choir members lost parents, siblings and friends, and the group took a hit money-wise. Normally members tour 11 months a year, but COVID forced cancellations.
“We didn’t get to go out and create music, and that hurt our finances,” Jiyane said. The current tour is the second one since the lifting of COVD restrictions.
In addition to making a joyful sound, the choir celebrates the different cultures and faiths of South Africa, Jiyane said. The country has 11 official languages, and the choir sings in six of them, including Sotho, Zulu and Xhosa.
The songs are “a tradition,” Jiyane said. “They are the songs that made us. They are the songs that kept us strong.”
To give back to the community, the choir has formed its own charity that provides food and clothing to people, pays funeral costs for families who can’t afford them and assists children who have been orphaned by AIDS. In the past year alone, the charity has fed more than 3,000 children, assisted with three funerals, paid for the schooling of two young men and provided funds for Nkosi’s Haven, which provides care and support to mothers and children impacted by HIV/AIDS, according to a press release from the choir.
“We want to minister about the message of joy, peace and happiness. We believe people should be one,” Jiyane said.
IF YOU GO: The Soweto Gospel Choir will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 20) in the Osterhout Concert Theater at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center. Tickets at $10 to $50 are available on the Anderson Center’s website, www.binghamton.edu/anderson-center (go to “upcoming events”). Tickets also are at the Anderson Center box office. Box office hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Or call 607-777-ARTS.