The Soweto Gospel Choir – Grounded In The Music Of South Africa

Mar 27, 2014

The Soweto Gospel Choir

One of the best known sounds from Africa is the music of South Africa - and one of the best known South African groups these days is the Soweto Gospel Choir - a super group made up of some of the best voices of the townships. The choir ranges from 20 to 30 members and is accompanied by bass, guitar, drum and keyboard – as well as lively dancing. From the beginning, the Choir has been an international hit and has acted as musical ambassadors to the world. They are currently in the midst of a 37-city U.S. tour. KMUW's Chris Heim had a chance to speak with one of the members of the group and has more.

The Soweto Gospel Choir performs Friday at Bethel College Memorial Hall in Newton, and they have additional dates in Lawrence, Manhattan and Oklahoma City.


Singing is at the center of South African music, which boasts a wide and rich array of vocal traditions. Two of South Africa's best known contemporary vocal groups - Soweto Gospel Choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo - both have new albums and are currently on tour in the U.S. Throughout March, Global Village highlights music from the two, along with other great voices, vocal groups and vocal traditions throughout the recorded history of South African music.


Soweto Gospel Choir Official Site

The Soweto Gospel Choir formed through an audition process in 2002 and recorded its first album at the end of that year. Within three weeks of its U.S. release, Voices from Heaven reached No. 1 on Billboard's World Music chart. They followed with five more albums, including the newly released, Divine Decade.  Musical ambassadors for their country, the Choir has toured internationally, been nominated for an Oscar, Grammy and Emmy, and received numerous honors. They have performed for celebrities and distinguished guests, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and collaborated with U2 and many other major South African and international artists. The group is currently in the midst of a 37-city U.S. tour, that includes regional dates later this month in Lincoln, Omaha, Lawrence, Manhattan, and Oklahoma City.


Ladysmith Black Mambazo Official Site

In the early 1960s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo formed under the leadership of Joseph Shabalala.
Ladysmith refers to the group's hometown; black is a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo or "chopping axe" is a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” rival singing groups. In fact, they were so good at this, they were barred from vocal competitions early in their career.

Ladysmith's traditional Zulu harmonies are a hallmark of the group and paved the way for their wider international  success after working with Paul Simon on the groundbreaking Graceland album. The group has recorded more than 50 albums, won four (and 'a half' - tied for Best World Music Album this year with the Gipsy Kings) Grammys along with 14 Grammy nominations as well as Oscar and Emmy nominations. They, too, are currently on a major U.S. tour and have just released a new album, Always With Us, a tribute to Joseph Shabalala's late wife, Nellie.


Chris Heim spoke with members of the Soweto Gospel Choir at the start of their U.S. tour. Here are excerpts from the conversation with choir members Sipokazi Nxumalo (alto and narrator), Shimmy Jiyane (choir master, tenor and choreographer) and Kevin Williams (tenor and lead guitar).

Tell us a bit about the choir - how it started and who is in the group.

South African music has a diverse history and long vocal tradition. Can you talk about that and how it has shaped the Soweto Gospel Choir's sound?

How many members of the choir are founding members? How does that affect the choir's sound more than 10 years later?

Can you tell us a little about American music in South Africa and how you’ve chosen to draw from that? Is there a difference between American gospel and South African gospel?

You've recorded the song "Mbube (Wimoweh)", which is probably the most familiar South African song to Americans. As a vocal style, is "Mbube" also the proper word to describe Soweto Gospel Choir's sound?

You draw from different kinds of musical influences but it seems that the overarching theme of your performance pieces is positivity. How do you go about choosing songs and how does that apply to your new record?

You've received many awards and honors, including a Sports Emmy and the first Grammy ever awarded to a song from a video game. What kind of awards, recognitions and performances stand out to you?

Divine Decade has a different sound than some of your previous albums. Is that because of the number of collaborations on the record, an evolution of the choir or both?

The choir has some new songs on this album but how many of the tracks on Divine Decade have been released before?

One of the choir's founding members passed away recently. How did that affect the group and how do you draw from that in your performances?

Your live performances offer much more than just the vocals of a typical choir. How are dance and instrumentals part of the choir and live shows?

Shimmy, you're a dancer and the choir's choreographer but you became a singer only after joining the group?

Can you explain a bit about your relationship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu?

With Nelson Mandela's passing late last year, the world shifted its focus to South Africa. What do people need to know about South Africa, especially today?