The Soweto Gospel Choir will perform at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 10 as a stop on its mammoth world tour in support of “Freedom,” a record that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.
Mandela, the legendary freedom fighter who survived nearly 30 years of detention under apartheid to become president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, would have been 100 on July 18. He died of a respiratory infection on December 5, 2013 at age 95.
The choir, which lists 46 members on its website, sings in six of South Africa’s 11 languages, including English, backed by a four-piece band and percussion section. “Freedom” includes the classic English-language gospel song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, sung partly in English, though most of the choir’s material, including verses of “Hallelujah,” is sung in languages seldom heard in St. Louis.
“Music is universal in any country,” the choir’s founding choirmaster and musical director David Mulduhedzi told the Deseret Morning News in 2006, three years before his death. “And it doesn’t matter if some audience members can’t understand the language. People can understand the spirit of the music.”
Shimmy Jiyane, a founding member, is the current choirmaster and choreographer, and Diniloxolo Ndlakuse, who joined the choir in 2006, is its musical director.
The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in November 2002 in Soweto, South Africa to celebrate the unique and inspirational power of African gospel music. Its first album, “Voices of Heaven,” recorded in December 2002, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music Chart within three weeks of its release in the U.S. The choir won American Gospel Music Awards for “Best Choir” and “Best International Choir” in 2003. It first performed for Mandela in October 2006 at the 75th birthday celebration for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is credited as the choir’s patron.
The choir has two Grammy Awards for “Best Traditional World Music,” in 2007 for its second CD, “Blessed,” and in 2008 for its third album, “African Spirit.” The choir would go on to sing with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Kirk Franklin, John Legend, Robert Plant and U2, among many others.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s highlights for 2018 include singing at the memorial service for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on April 11, performing with Chance The Rapper at a sold-out concert later that month, a May recording of struggle songs and their September release on the Mandela tribute album “Freedom,” the choir’s sixth record with the New Jersey-based Shanachie Entertainment.
"The significance of Nelson Mandela's 100th commemoration to South Africans is, firstly and foremost, a reminder of the role played by Nelson Mandela in moving South Africa from a position of being an undemocratic, oppressive society to one of a peaceful co-existence for all racial groups,” said Ndlakuse. “Mandela represents love, peace, forgiveness and strength to the choir."
“Freedom” includes “Mbombela,” a South African traditional sung in Swazi and popularized by Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba in 1965 that was a staple of the struggle against apartheid.
“When we visit other countries, we know people won’t understand what we are singing, but we found out that no matter where we go, people like what they are hearing,” Mulduhedzi told the Deseret Morning News. “It doesn’t matter if we sing for religious people or non-religious people. I have found, regardless of beliefs, we can make a connection with people.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s performances partly benefit Nkosi’s Haven Vukani, which raises money and resources for children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. Its St. Louis appearance is presented by the African Heritage Association of St. Louis, the parent organization of the St. Louis African Arts Festival. Tickets range from $30 to $60. Visit tickets.touhill.org or call 314-516-4949 or 866-516-4949 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.
For more information, visit www.sowetogospelchoir.com