When the Soweto Gospel Choir was named as winner of the Grammy for Best World Music Album, it earned the ensemble a place in the music history books.
Announced by Questlove, drummer from the US hip hop band The Roots, the award sparked an explosion of excitement among the South African singers.
“He was almost stuttering, like: ‘And the winner is Fr- Fr- Freedom, Sss- Soweto Gospel Choir,’ then we jumped up! Like he took long, man,” chuckled choirmaster Shimmy Jiyane.
“I screamed my lungs out,” admits choir member Mary Mulovhedzi.
“Then the ululating came, the Sowetans in us just came out, we couldn’t hold back.”
What earned them the award was their album “Freedom” a 12-track tribute to Nelson Mandela released to mark the 100th year of his birth.
It was the choir’s third Grammy in its 17-year existence, adding to accolades which include an Emmy and a debut album called “Voices From Heaven” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music Chart.
“Freedom” gives a modern twist to so-called struggle songs, campaigning music rooted in South Africa’s apartheid past, when the black majority were subjugated by the white minority.
“It’s a story in a way of what happened during those days,” bass singer Mulalo Mulovhedzi told AFP.
The album draws inspiration “from the freedom fighters of 1976,” he said, referring to a linchpin year in the fight against apartheid – the Soweto uprising.
“The whole idea was that we have to go back to Soweto, where freedom started.”
The ensemble, which counts 52 members, has graced prestigious foreign venues including Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Festival Hall in London.
The brightly-dressed singers have collaborated with several international acts including Celine Dion and Chance The Rapper and also worked with Peter Gabriel on the song “Down To Earth” from the 2008 sci-fi blockbuster “Wall-E”.
The track went on to win a Grammy in the Best Movie Song category.
Mulovhedzi, whose late father David co-founded the group, says the group’s sound has evolved “because of the experience of the collaborations with other artists”.
But choirmaster Jiyane insists their signature sounds are “simple” and unchanged.
“It’s something that is raw, it’s something that is proudly South African and it’s something that comes from the streets of Soweto.”
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