The sound of hope: Soweto Gospel Choir's Australian tour

From the heart of South Africa, the Soweto Gospel Choir arose to share songs of freedom and the story of their country’s past. Ahead of their epic four-month ‘Hope’ concert tour in Australia, Eternity sat down with founding member and choirmaster, Shimmy Jiyane, to learn more about this formidable group and hear some of their untold stories.

Founded in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has been entertaining and inspiring audiences around the world for over two decades. Over the years their stirring music and vibrant performances have earned the group three Grammy awards, an Emmy award and a nomination for an Oscar award.

“Hope means everything to us.” – Shimmy Jiyane

A classically trained dancer, Shimmy auditioned for the choir when it all began in 2002. “We always saw ourselves as ambassadors of South Africa. Celebrating South Africa with the world, getting to show them our roots and our beautiful cultures,” says Shimmy.

Soweto Gospel Choir

The new Hope concert opens with South African freedom songs then reaches across the world to the historic protest music of the US Civil Rights movement, with unique performances of the music of James Brown, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

“Hope means everything to us,” says Shimmy. When the choir and team reflected on the last few years, they recognised how desperately the world needs hope at this time. “COVID-19 hit all of us hard. We lost family members, loved ones through the pandemic. People lost their jobs, and the world was just going through this darkness,” he says.

“We wanted to create something that will revive the people of the world. Something positive and inspiring,” says Shimmy.

During the height of the pandemic, the choir members, like millions of others in South Africa and all over the world, were out of jobs for two and a half years. “The only thing that we could do was to pray. We prayed a lot. We couldn’t see each other for two years. We couldn’t talk to each other or sing together. It was tough,” says Shimmy.

“Many people lost faith. They were asking if God is still there for us. They were asking, ‘What am I going to believe in?’ ” shares Shimmy.

“But we know that the music is also the food for the soul. We wanted to create something that will revive the people of the world. We have to create something that is going to be fresh in people’s ears. Something positive and inspiring,” says Shimmy.

Soweto Gospel choir performance

When they regrouped, the choir had a clear vision to, “create music that will give people hope. Give people energy again. To say God is not dead, he is alive!”

“What you see on stage is not just a group of singers, we are a family.”

Faith plays a significant role in the lives of the choir members. It’s what fuels their performances and unites them. “We come from different churches and different backgrounds as choir members, but we come together as one praising God,” shares Shimmy. “Wherever we go, we not only perform and make people smile. We minister to people through song,” he asserts.

The Soweto Gospel Choir members express deep gratitude to God for all they get to do through the power of music. “We pray before our performances. We love God. There’s nothing that we do without saying, ‘thank you, Lord,’” shares Shimmy. “What you see on stage is not just a group of singers, we are a family. We support each other. We create a great atmosphere where every person knows that ‘I’m covered’. It’s the atmosphere of love,” he says.

Music has given the choir members the opportunity to rise above their own difficult times and to honour and remember the way music has lifted people up in difficult times throughout history.

The roots of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s music are deeply intertwined with the history of South Africa and its struggle against apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination that lasted from 1948 to the early 1990s.

“We still remember what happened in 1976. We still remember songs that were sung by our great grannies and great grandfathers,” says Shimmy.

Soweto Gospel choir show

Soweto was the site of a turning point in South African history. In 1976 over 20,000 Soweto schoolchildren staged a protest, which ended in brutal violence and the death of 1000 students. That event marked the end of black submissiveness in South Africa, drawing the attention of the world and igniting active nationwide resistance and the beginning of the end of apartheid. These echoes of their struggle and resilience can be heard in every performance, from gospel songs to African American spirituals and folk music.

“We still remember what happened in 1976. We still remember songs that were sung by our great grannies and great grandfathers,” says Shimmy. “We also want to acknowledge the similarities with other freedom movements like the African American civil rights movement. Music carried our people through and also brought everybody together,” he says.

The music of the Soweto Gospel Choir reminds us of the strength of the human spirit. Shimmy emphasises that, “Nelson Mandela said, ‘You must learn to forgive, but never forget.'” The choir joyfully shares the music and legacy of the past, and hope for the future. They commence their four-month Australian tour this month with a whopping 69 performances across all mainland states, from major cities and regional venues. This includes a one-night-only show at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on 10th October, as part of the Opera House’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and two performances as part of the Desert Song Festival in Alice Springs.

Visit the official website to find performance dates in your state.