Soweto Gospel Choir honors Madiba


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Two weeks after the passing of Nelson Mandela, while the world was still fresh in mourning, something hopeful happened at the Woolworth's market in downtown Pretoria.

Amidst the din of shopping music, several Woolies "staffers" and "shoppers" broke into magnificent song. The flash mob, whose musical tribute to the country's beloved Madiba -- Mandela's Xhosa clan name, used in affection -- has garnered nearly 4.5 million views on YouTube, was the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Armed with a rousing anti-apartheid harmony and a basket of roses, the choristers offered a healing balm to the crowd, and to the masses who still grieve. The choir will bring these powerful vocals to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center this Friday, Feb. 14, in a concert dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela.

It will be an auspicious event, according to Mahaiwe executive director Beryl Jolly, who is eager to see the choir live.

"We sealed the booking for this show in the early fall," she said. "It was fortuitous timing. It then became an opportunity to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela and the personal and global impact that one individual can have on the world. It's a deep opportunity for reflection in our own community."

The Soweto Gospel Choir has always provided an opportunity for rebellious reflection. Founded in 2002, the singing group quickly rose to illustrious heights with its powerfully raspy chords, raising the roof in six different tribal languages -- and English and Latin and other tongues -- and spreading the gospel of peace around the globe.

Their most recently released album, "Divine Decade" (April 2013), is a testament to their fame and talent and includes collaborators such as U2, Robert Plant, Johnny Clegg and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Despite their acclaim, and divine ascent, the group stays true to their roots and the beliefs held by their beloved Madiba. Shimmy Jiyane, who is a founding member of the choir and now its chief choreographer and tenor, said that no matter the venue, the music keeps him humble.

"We fly our country's flag high, no matter where we go," he said by phone from South Africa. "When we started, we never dreamed that people would love the choir like they did. We came together as a people that want to perform and bring our music to everybody. We learn to be humble, we learn to work with other people. It brings out the creativity in you, if you are willing to learn and to learn what other cultures do, how they sing, what they are all about."

Jiyane said that most of what the choir does during rehearsal is listen; listen to each other, listen to guest artists, listen to the language. It is a practice that may one day save the world, he joked. Before Friday night's performance, the choir will conduct a music workshop with students from the Monument Valley Middle School.

"Throughout the year our students in sixth grade have worked on issues of cultural awareness, opportunities for personal reflection, positive community involvement, and creative expression as part of a school wide initiative," said Donna Astion, the school's enrichment coordinator. "We have also acknowledged the work that Nelson Mandela did in his lifetime, within our ELA and Social Studies classes. What better way to bring all these ideas together than with joyful and meaningful interaction with members of the Soweto Gospel Choir."

Making a joyful noise is something that any audience from any nation can understand. The Soweto Gospel Choir's blend of traditional drum-laden spirituals, modern-day ballads (their cover of Sarah McLaughlin's "Arms of an Angel" is haunting) and a cappella tributes is a unifying force, especially for a first-time listener. According to the seasoned and charismatic Jiyane, things can get a little overwhelming for stateside audiences.

"In America, we get people standing up, people crying. It's the most beautiful audience, because you are hearing something for the first time," he said.

Even Jiyane, who has performed spirituals for years and across continents, gets emotional about the music and the message.

He said that in 2005, he met Mandela for the first time in Johannesburg.

"It was the best time of my life," he said. "It is something that the choir has cherished forever. He is still a monument. An icon. To us, he is still a father."

If you go ...

What: Soweto Gospel Choir

When: Friday, Feb. 14,

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Admisssion:$25 upper balcony; $45 members; $50;
$65 preferred seating.

or (413) 528-0100


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