One of the most acclaimed choral ensembles in the world has released a new album with songs that aim to lift the spirits of people around the world still struggling to come to terms with the sense of loss and disruption of life caused by the pandemic.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s new album Hope is their first in four years and lives up to its title with a repertoire that transcends traditional African hymns, American soul and gospel, and anti-apartheid anthems.
Each song, whatever its origin, is delivered with the trademark energy and the spark that has won this group admirers around the world.
The three-time Grammy Award-winning choir is currently on a tour of North America performing in more than 50 cities around the US promoting their new album in a country where, through the years, they have earned a huge following.
Choir master Shimmy Jiyane says both South Africa and the US share a similar history of segregation and oppression and music was and continues to be one of the best forms of protest and resistance.
“Music can express suffering and reach the soul with a message of freedom and hope like nothing else,” he says. “Through the universal language of music, people are united globally and they are healed and given hope through the power of songs.”
The 13 songs on Hope are performed in English and South African languages — Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and Tswana.
The choir rehearsed the music at the Mofolo Arts Centre a hub of artistic performance in Soweto located within the route of the historic uprising of 1976 when 10,000 protestors, led by schoolchildren, staged a protest against a decree by the apartheid regime making Afrikaans a language of instruction in schools.
It is, therefore, fitting that the album opens with Mbayi Mbayi, which was among the songs that the young protestors chanted during the demonstrations and one that the choir leader says is tinged with poignancy for the people of 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,” says Jiyane.
The second song is a rendition of the traditional African American spiritual Amen with percussions accompanying the soaring vocals of the group.
The choir stamps its unique vocal identity on American Soul classics like Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come, I’ll Take you There made famous by the Staple Singers and a rousing version of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit Heaven Help Us All beautifully rendered in a mix of English, Zulu and Sotho.
Hugh Masekela’s Sechaba brings back memories of the South African 1990s musical Sarafina as the choir does very little to change from the stirring vocal arrangement, with sparse percussions in the background.
The mood gets very emotional when the choir sings the Xhosa hymn Bawo Xa Ndilahlekayo translated to mean ‘Lord if I get lost, please lead me back to you.
The hymn was a favourite of choir founding member and general manager Mulalo Mulovhedzi who passed away early in 2022 and is included on the album as a tribute to his memory.
The Soweto Gospel Choir, which was formed in late 2002, comprises more than 50 young singers and musicians, mostly in their 20s and in two decades the group has won worldwide acclaim for their enchanting performances and wholesome values.
They use the platform of music to run their community projects like their Aids orphans foundation supporting the health and education of children orphaned by the disease.
Their only performance in Kenya was in August 2019 and those lucky enough to have attended their concert will remember the unique vocal arrangements, dazzling stage costumes, and spectacular choreography and drumming.
Jiyane says it means a lot to the choir as the South African artists come from the township of Soweto to take the sounds of South Africa to the world.
They have recorded and performed with Beyonce, Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, US, John Legend and a host of global stars.
The artwork of the album sleeve for Hope is designed by South African artist Kerabo Poppy Moletsane who is renowned for creating graphics for Nike, Google, Coca Cola and the first African series on Netflix Queen Sono
Jiyane says the group created this album while reflecting on the devastation caused by the pandemic: the loss of family and loved ones, jobs, businesses and homes.
“For us, as artists not to be able to express our art broke our hearts,” he says. “Our desire is that through listening to this album we can help start the healing process to enable people to find hope.”