Hancher hosts Soweto Gospel Choir for soulful world premiere of new album

On Oct. 10, Hancher Auditorium hosted the Soweto Gospel Choir for the world premiere of their new album, “Hope: It’s Been a Long Time Coming.”


Contributed photo by Stephen Garnett.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

As the main lights in Hancher Auditorium dimmed on Monday night, the audience fell quiet and turned to the stage. A man stepped into the spotlight and blew into a small horn. The sound filled the auditorium, and a woman appeared from the wings, microphone in hand — and then she began to sing.

Her first note burst with soul — the audience was instantly starstruck. They watched her as she swayed with the music like it was inside of her and she was simply an extension of it. 

Behind her, the rest of the Soweto Gospel Choir filed onto the stage in two neat lines, while three accompanying musicians joined upstage. The group came in together, and their many voices became one. 

The Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2003 in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The choir participated in the democratic movement of South Africa that was taking place during its inception. It has since performed with some of the biggest names in music, including Beyoncé, John Legend, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

The choir performs primarily acapella pieces that sometimes feature instruments like drums or the keyboard. They aim to represent various South African cultures with their songs and their costumes, which bear the colors of South African tribes. 

Iowa is the first state in the U.S. to hear the Soweto Gospel Choir perform their newest album, “Hope: It’s Been a Long Time Coming,” at a Hancher performance on Monday. The show was originally scheduled for Sep. 29 but was delayed due to visa conflicts. 

This album is a reflection on the civil rights injustices happening in the world and the hope that prevails even during the darkest of times, said Shimmy Jiyane, the Soweto Gospel choirmaster of three years.

“We are trying to show that Black Lives Matter, and we are trying to showcase that we are not ignorant about whatever is happening around the world,” Jiyane said. 

The Soweto Gospel Choir is returning to Hancher after having performed in 2018. The staff at Hancher was honored to host the choir again for the venue’s 50th anniversary season. 

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“Our staff is just looking forward to having people who are so committed to spreading happiness wherever they go, and we should all use that, and we’ll be happy to have them back in our auditorium,” said Rob Cline, communications director at Hancher.

The first act of the concert revolved around music performed in African languages, many of which were traditional songs of South African cultures. They seemed to focus on multiple themes, including loss, excitement, action, and inspiration. Even without knowing the languages of the songs, their messages could be understood through the choir’s body language and the tone of their voices.

The concert involved the physicality of cultural dance. Each song was accompanied by choreography that helped translate the mood and meaning of the piece. 

For those more upbeat songs, a small group of choir members separated from their lines and took center stage to dance. Their movements flowed in a natural synchronization, every footfall meeting the beat. The combination of song and dance created a powerful and joyful sight to behold. 

“The choir loves tone, the choir loves singing for their audiences all over the world, and the choir loves being onstage and making people happy,” Jiyane said. This was clear from the way they energized the audience and encouraged them to clap along to certain songs.

Throughout the concert, the lights bathed the stage in deep blues, fiery reds, and warm yellows, echoing the mood of each song. Behind the choir hung a magnificent set of geometric patterns and shapes, featuring every color on the spectrum. 

For certain songs, a screen would drop down from above and project clips of civil rights protests and marches, scenes of poverty in marginalized South African communities, or images of activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. These projections captured profound imagery of injustice that a song could not otherwise depict. 

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The second act of the concert continued to evoke a wide range of emotions, but revolved around covers of songs in English, including “This Little Light of Mine” by Odetta, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, and “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo. 

The choir continued to perform with the same expressiveness and vibrancy they had displayed during the first act, and time flew by too quickly. By the end, the audience was blown away. A woman in the back of the auditorium shouted for one more, so the choir blessed the crowd with an encore rendition of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

“For people who may be looking for a way of communion and finding a common ground with Africans, like we share the same struggle, we are all looking for the same opportunity, fighting for equality and looking for hope and a brighter future, I think this is really opportune for the community to show and say that we win the right way,” said attendee Fernand Bila. “We keep hope.”