Shimmy Jiyane lives in Soweto, a historic township in the southwest of Johannesburg. It was the home of Nelson Mandela, who, following the brutal Soweto Massacre, became a symbol for redemption and equality around the world. And as Jiyane explains, like Mandela, the Soweto Gospel Choir flies the flag for an equal South Africa.
“We are ambassadors of our country. So whatever we do, we make sure the flag of our country is raised very high,” says Jiyane in beautiful, broken English. “After those 1976 riots, we kept going as a country. Now what we’re doing is going on with our lives, because what Nelson Mandela said is to forgive but not to forget.”
Founded by David Mulovhedzi and Beverly Bryer, two choirmasters from Soweto, Soweto Gospel Choir has more than 30 local vocalists in their ranks. Since their inception in 2003, the choir has released four albums of evocative gospel music, laced with themes of historical importance to their hometown and the wider world.
“Sometimes we write our own music but other times we go back to where we came from, go deep into our history and find songs that people have never heard before,” says Jiyane. “Then we take them to the choir and try to put our own spin on it. That’s what we do as a choir – we like going back into our history.”
The biggest step in the choir’s decade-long tenure was its appearance at the final of the South African Soccer World Cup in 2010, which Jiyane describes as their biggest international platform. World Cup aside, other career highlights are sure to include performing alongside Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, as well as picking up the award for Best Traditional World Music Album at the Grammys two years in a row.
No stranger to Australian shores, Jiyane says he’s continually surprised by the size of their audiences down under, and it’s a constant source of pride for his family back home. “I’ve still got a house in Soweto. I’m not married yet, but I live with my brothers and sisters and my mother. They love what I’m doing and they are very supportive of that.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir performed at the Sydney Opera House on March 14.