Soweto Gospel Choir Offers Secrets To Their Sound

For the last decade, the 26-member choir has captivated audiences including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. Their blend of high energy, languages and musical traditions has won them numerous awards and a loyal fan base. They're now on a 43-city North American tour, and they stopped by for a performance chat with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They have been captivating audiences around the world for nearly a decade with their high energy blend of languages and musical traditions. I'm talking about South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELI")

SOWETO GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: That is "Eli" from the "African Grace" album. After scores of awards, international fame and nods from some of the world's most distinguished musicians, the group is now on a 43-city North American tour, and when we found out, we just had to ask them to stop by our Washington, D.C. performance studio. And they are with us now.

Welcome. Thank you all so much for joining us. Thank you for coming.

SHIMMY JIYANE: Thank you.

KEVIN WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, the group is 23 members touring, of which 12 of you are here with us now - and as much as we'd like to hear from all of you, we've asked that you appoint two volunteers to chat with us. So I will be speaking with choir master Shimmy Jiyane and guitarist Kevin Williams. Thank you both for chatting with us.

JIYANE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Shimmy, you've been with the group from the beginning. Do I have this correct?

JIYANE: Yes.

MARTIN: If you could just remind us how the group got started?

JIYANE: The group was formed in 2002, downtown Johannesburg, in a place called Yeoville Recreation Center. And it was through Mr. David Mulovhedzi, the late David Mulovhedzi - David Mulovhedzi, who is our - is the founding member of Soweto Gospel Choir. And then he met Beverly Bryer, who is our executive producer. Yes. And then there's Andrew Kay - we call him Mr. Kay - which is the big boss. Yeah. Then he came from Australia to South Africa to come and search for talent.

They went and saw a show called UMOJA. They fell in love with the sound of South Africa and, you know, the music. And they just asked Mr. David Mulovhedzi, how can we come about to bring up a choir that will go all over the world and, you know, perform, showcase the talent that we have in our country?

And then Mr. David Mulovhedzi said to them, you know what? I've got a choir called The Holy Jerusalem. So I can take you to my house and they rehearsing right now. Let's go there. And they went there and they were, like, wow. They were wowed about what they saw. And they said, OK. Let's do auditions. And then we sang and sang and then - until now, we standing here. We part of the choir.

MARTIN: When did you realize that you had become big stars, a sensation? Because you have to know that you are one of the most revered South African groups...

JIYANE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and among world musicians, among the most respected. So I'm just wondering if there was a moment when you said, wow, we've really done something here.

JIYANE: I think it would be 2003, when we released our first album called "Voices from Heaven." And when we came to the States, it was in 2003. It was on the number one on the music - well, Billboard - for, like, three weeks, the first album. So that's when I said, wow. The people know. They're liking what we're doing, so I think we're going places. Yeah.

And then after that, we did that, we came and then there was a Grammy. And there was another Grammy the second year again, so, yeah. That's when I realized, now we're going somewhere.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, let's hear what the people are raving about. What is the first thing that I think you want to perform for us?

JIYANE: The song we're going to perform for you - it's called "Seteng Sediba," there is salvation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SETENG SEDIBA")

CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And they're only 12 people here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I have to, you'll have to take my word for it. There are only 12 people here. That is quite amazing.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, though Kevin, I understand that you're touring 11 months out of the year?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It's like nine to 10 months a year...

MARTIN: Nine to 10 months.

WILLIAMS: ...away from home, away from family.

MARTIN: That must be hard.

WILLIAMS: At times it becomes tiring, you know? You do feel it mostly when you, you know, maybe like in the middle of the tour you start missing family and friends. But the nice thing about the Soweto Gospel family is that, you know, when we're more on stage we tend to forget about what's happening at home, about who we're missing. Because when we're on stage we now become dependent on our family members right here with Soweto Gospel Choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JIYANE: Yeah.

MARTIN: The American spiritual, as we understand it, comes from, it really comes from our African roots. But it also has in it kind of messages about our condition and our desires for a better life. How would you describe the roots of your sound and the songs that you choose to sing?

WILLIAMS: Well, as you can hear that in the language itself it's very much homegrown, also based on the struggles that our people have been through also the forms of communication, that's how our elderly people also communicated back then when they were working in the mines were also through music. And you find out that the African culture kind of music is also a little bit more different with a coarser sound and maybe the Venda sound and the Suto sound. But one thing, as we see that despite the fact that we all speak in different languages, but just like music, different songs, but also has one meaning to it.

MARTIN: We were talking about how the group has songs that are very familiar to Americans, like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," Simon and Garfunkel classic.

WILLIAMS: Like "This Little Light of Mine."

MARTIN: Or "This Little Light of Mine."

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you Soweto-ize it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JIYANE: We feel we have to Soweto-ize it...

MARTIN: Yeah.

JIYANE: OK. What we'll do is that we'll put some like we'll put our own language into first and then we put our own feel to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: We're visiting with the Soweto Gospel Choir. They are currently on a demanding 43-city North American tour. And when we found out we just had to get them to stop by our Washington, D.C. performance studio.

Will you play something else for us?

JIYANE: Yes.

MARTIN: What are you going to do next?

JIYANE: The song we're going to sing now, it's called "Kae le Kae." It's in English it's like wherever I go with Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KAE LE KAE")

CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you.

JIYANE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Very beautiful.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Beautiful. Well, you know, music is global now. So you probably heard everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But since you've on your tour...

WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: Is there anything you've picked up here in the States that you're going to take back with you? Anything unexpected? A little Eminem? A little...

WILLIAMS: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Well, familiar sounds that is back home, you know? I don't know. Well, Shimmy laughs. He's old school. So I think we'll be taking home some of the old school songs.

MARTIN: Old school?

JIYANE: Yeah, old school. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Really? R&B?

JIYANE: Manhattans, the O'Jays.

MARTIN: The O'Jays?

JIYANE: R&B, yeah, for sure. Yeah.

MARTIN: R&B for sure.

JIYANE: R&B for sure. Boyz II Men. I like their latest album, "20." And then what else, brother?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there's a lot.

JIYANE: There's a lot. We listen to a lot of music. Like hip-hop. I mean.

MARTIN: Yeah.

JIYANE: There's some J. Cole. And then T-Pain, T.I.

MARTIN: T.I.

JIYANE: So we listen to those kind of music also. We're not like stereotype where going to listen to only ours.

WILLIAMS: Where we only listen to our style.

JIYANE: But back home, you know, we will play the music too.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. I'd like to hear you do a Christmas album. I'd like to hear what you could do with Bing Crosby.

WILLIAMS: Mm. You'll hear it Christmas time. Definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'd like to see what you could do with "White Christmas," but, you know. Well, thank you all. Thank you all.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: What are you most looking forward to? Kevin, what are you most looking forward to?

WILLIAMS: Just getting on stage and performing. That's what I love. In fact, we all love that, you know, because it's like what most of the people always ask us: thank you guys for changing how we felt when we left home.

JIYANE: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: And we always say to them, if you want to know where Soweto Gospel Choir lives, put your hand on your heart and you'll feel that's where we live, right there, your heartbeat.

JIYANE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Aw. Well, thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And when you go home finally, after very long tour is at an end, what you hope that your audiences will draw from the experience?

JIYANE: Our mission is to bring joy, peace and happiness in people and everyone that comes to our shows. So that's what we actually we want to leave with the people. And what we want to leave here is that people must always remember about good music that we brought to America and the harmonies, the beautiful rich harmonies that we brought to America, the beautiful dancing. And also, because we're here to showcase our African gospel and our South African gospel music and our talent as voices. We're also looking forward to be like they remember us even when you go. So you'll be like, I know, I know her. She used to sing with so-and-so, so. Yeah..

MARTIN: All right. Kevin, any final thought?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Well, we've been hearing from quite a lot of people, you know, over the few years that we've been here that yes, thank you for inspiring my daughter.

JIYANE: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: She's now singing for a choir. Or thank you for motivating me. I'm now better than what I used to be, you know, and we love hearing things like that because we know that we're only here to fulfill, you know, one purpose and that's to minister to people and touch people's lives, whether it's through speaking, whether it's through singing, whether it's through just dancing, but just like communication that comes in all forms, and that's what we love doing is touching people's lives.

JIYANE: Yes.

MARTIN: We're visiting with the Soweto Gospel Choir. They are currently engaged in a 43-city North American tour, and they were nice enough to stop by our Washington D.C. studios to spread a little peace, love and joy with us.

JIYANE: Yes.

MARTIN: And we are so appreciative. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

JIYANE: Thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You were going to sing one more thing as we go? What's it called?

JIYANE: It's called "Emlanjeni."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EMLANJENI")

CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: You've been listening to South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir. The group is currently on tour throughout North America and they joined us here at NPR's Performance Studios in Washington, D.C.

And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "EMLANJENI")

CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language)

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