Since their formation in South Africa in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has recorded four albums, won two Grammys and toured the world. The choir has shared the stage with big names like Celine Dion and Bono, appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and backed John Legend at the 81st Academy Awards.
“I never thought we would be where we are now,” said choir master Shimmy Jiyane. “We thought we were just joining a choir. … It is a blessing.”
The 24-member singing group will perform Friday at Bethel College in North Newton as part of the Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts Series. The performance will also kick off the Newton Area Arts Council’s first “Spring Into Arts” Festival.
The Soweto Gospel Choir covers classic gospel hymns like “This Little Light of Mine” as well as South African hymns, and pairs them with choreography inspired by traditional tribal dances. Jiyane credits the choir’s success to its original sound. The group sings a cappella with an African beat, using a wooden drum called the djembe.
“It was a different sound … that audiences had not heard before,” Jiyane said.
Though the group has had ample opportunities to brush shoulders with famous musicians, the choir’s tenor and lead guitarist, Kevin Williams, says the onstage experience is the best part of his job.
“We all connect onstage,” Williams said. “There is so much energy.”
The connection does not break when the spotlights are gone. Most of the members have known each other for over a decade. The family dynamic is necessary for a group that spends 10 to 11 months of the year away from home, sharing buses and hotel rooms.
“I know that I can call and talk to any one of the members at any time,” Jiyane said. “We are there for each other. Always.”
The group holds auditions in South Africa that Jiyane says are similar to “American Idol.” “Everyone wants to be in the choir,” Jiyane said.
Fostering that high level of trust and comfort is item No. 1 for new members. “We just let you be,” said Jiyane. “We make sure that we take care of you and make you feel at home.”
Williams said the goal of the show is to give the audience a good time, no matter their troubles. “Everyone is going through different challenges,” Williams said. “Our job is to make (the audience) sit back and relax and enjoy our culture and our sound.”
The choir’s message is faith-based but not exclusive. “We just want to send a message of peace, joy and happiness,” Jiyane said.
The group is on its fifth North American tour, with plans to perform in 37 cities. The Bethel College performance will be followed by a Saturday show at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and a Sunday performance at Kansas State University in Manhattan.