Choir to celebrate Nelson Mandela with ‘Songs of the Free’ at Penn State

The Soweto Gospel Choir will perform Tuesday at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium.
The Soweto Gospel Choir will perform Tuesday at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium. Photo provided

On Tuesday, Eisenhower Auditorium and the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State will welcome Soweto Gospel Choir for the choir’s uplifting performance, “Songs of the Free: Celebrating the Centenary of Nelson Mandela.”

The Soweto Gospel Choir — which is named after Soweto, or South West Township, the birthplace of the South African democratic movement — is a 20-person choir from South Africa, with two Grammy Awards under its belt and affiliations with big-time names like U2, Stevie Wonder and Celine Dion. Formed in 2002, the choir reached top spots on the Billboard World Music Chart and won recognitions almost immediately after recording its first album, its talent quickly recognized the world over. The choir released its latest album, “Freedom,” in May.

The concert is split into two parts. During the first, the program celebrates Mandela with a special concert of songs the choir actually performed for Mandela on occasions throughout his life (they would also go on to sing at Mandela’s state funeral in South Africa and commemorative service at Westminster Cathedral in London).

According to Vincent “Shimmy” Jiyane, choreographer and choir master, the choir went to great lengths to ensure it represented the truth about South Africa and Mandela through song. The choir’s end goal is to ensure every member of the audience walks away with an increased knowledge of the South African struggle and a newfound appreciation for its relevance today.

While the performance, which is given in six of South Africa’s 11 official languages, is surely moving to audiences, Jiyane notes the experience is just as moving for the choir members, if not more so.

“The show we do brings back a lot of emotions,” he said. “There are members of the choir, that their families lost their lives through the struggle. Any time we perform the show, it’s something that’s very emotional and very close to their hearts.”

There’s also a certain sense of pride that the performers exude throughout their performance.

“You can see how we pride ourselves in South Africa ... (the performance) speaks of freedom and of Nelson Mandela and the legacy he left within us and what he taught and instilled in us ... and when you see it onstage, you can see he left behind a people and a choir that prides themselves on being South African,” Jiyane said. “It’s very emotional.”

He personally finds it very important that his choir pass along this message to the world, and encourages parents to bring their children to the show.

“Most people don’t know about our struggle. ... The youth of today don’t know what happened. Sometimes they don’t even know who Nelson Mandela is,” he said. “So that’s one thing we want people to come and see and listen and hear. ... We talk about it through song and through dance, through the drumming ... We want people to feel what we feel.”

The second portion of the program brings a certain familiarity to the experience, with a lineup of songs that includes international gospel classics and favorite holiday tunes like you’ve never heard them before.

If you go

What: Soweto Gospel Choir’s “Songs of the Free”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park

Info: www.cpa.psu.edu