In Conversation With: Joyous Celebration.

In build up to Joyous Celebration Megafest at the Durban International Convention Centre (ICC) over the Easter weekend, we got to speak to group co-founder, Pastor Jabu Hlongwane.

The conversation ranged on the thinking and planning around the fest as well as the added elements to this year’s edition that give an experience beyond the stereotypical “live music concert”. We also discuss the prospect of surprise guest acts and alumna appearance.

We conclude the conversation by touching on the two new Joyous Celebration albums titled, Hope and Victory respectively.

Find the conversation with Ps. Hlongwane below…

Over the past few years Joyous Celebration Easter weekends have been hosted in Johannesburg, what inspired the change of venue to Durban this year?

The decision came from reading the times and reading the geography of the music industry and where we are as a brand. The aim was never to stay in Joburg forever, it’s just that it was convenient to be in Joburg for all these years. We actually started our Easter-weekend shows in Durban, that’s where it all began. Our biggest fanbase is in Durban and then Joburg, but having the shows in Joburg became convenient as we moved along because we are all based in Joburg and it’s easy to get to rehearsals, the venue, the media, and all kinds of stuff that are connected to what we do; and so we stayed a little while longer in Joburg also because of the arrangement we had with Carnival City.

But this time around, after Covid we decided to do things differently – Covid changed a lot of things in terms of our thinking on how we want to do things. Besides the change of venue, we have changed a lot of things in terms of the production and so we said why not try to do 3 days in Durban at the ICC? When we started the Easter weekend shows, we started at the Playhouse. Since then our fanbase has grown and now we want to thank Kwa-Zulu Natal for their support over the years by bringing this launching this extravaganza in Durban.

Another thing is that people come in from Joburg – it’s an interesting phenomena. Joburgers don’t mind getting into their cars and driving down to Durban. It’s a long weekend and they can’t wait to get out of the hustle and bustle of Joburg and head to the coast, it’s a good getaway and you can come and enjoy Joyous Celebration.

What was the thinking behind the soon-to-be launched Gospel meets Soul & Jazz Supper Club and what can people expect from it?

We try new things all the time. People that have followed us from way back will tell you that we used to have dancers on stage at some point. Now we are trying this new concept of having a gala dinner setup with round tables and good food where not only gospel music played but soul and jazz too. The members of Joyous Celebration have all these musical influences and we want to explore them. Those who have been following Joyous will attest to the fact that we have done gospel that was infused with jazz, RnB, and even Maskandi. We are not removing the gospel presentation, we are adding a twist to it – we want people to dress up and come dine to beautiful and uplifting music. It is a nice and relaxed environment where you can bring your person, and have a good time. [Then] on Sunday we go back to what is known.

We have planned the MegaFest as follows:

Friday, 7 April: We launch Joyous Celebration 27
Saturday, 8 April: We give the gala dinner experience to the sounds of Gospel Music with a twist of Soul and Jazz
Sunday, 9 April: We invite other gospel artists, who are our friends, to come and join us on stage.

The days are stacked like this so you can come to all three days and have a unique experience and get a different take on gospel each day, instead of having the same thing every day for the three day – and this is not to say that doing the same does not work, because in the past we would have the same show over three days; but this time around we decided to bring a twist to the normal programming and give each day its own character, but under the umbrella of Joyous Celebration. We are starting out this year and we hope to build on this in the coming years, and we truly hope that our audiences will enjoy it.

Any clues on which Friends will share the stage with Joyous Celebration on Sunday?

We normally do not announce them (friends) because we want our audiences to be surprised on the day and we enjoy seeing their faces light up when their favourite artists join us on stage. We started inviting other artists to join a few years ago when we did Joyous Celebration and friends in Pretoria. When we were recording this past year we invited Hlengiwe Mhlaba and Ncandweni. It is something we love doing and will continue to do. We just don’t announce the artists beforehand because we want to maintain the element of surprise.

Will there be any Alumni features at the MegaFest?

Yes, we [will] do that. There might be one or two joining us but we won’t say who. One thing we are confident about is that our audiences will enjoy every moment. We want to keep them under wraps just like the Friends. It adds to the excitement of the whole show because if we announce who will be joining Joyous Celebration at the ICC then people will start requesting and hoping that their favourite song(s) will be performed, so the focus would shift to that. But if you don’t know anything, the enjoyment is more. The excitement is a lot more. You’re excited to see your artist on stage and you get to live in the moment and enjoy the performance.

As you have mentioned Joyous Celebration is always incorporating new elements to its production and that has worked well for almost three decades. In addition to this, what would you say are other contributing factors that make up the JC winning formula?

A lot of people don’t really pay attention to what works and that is often to their detriment. We do our best to take note of what works and do more of that. The formula has been evident from when we started back with Joyous Celebration 1.

Number 1 – Include songs that are familiar. When we started Joyous Celebration with Joyous 1, we took songs people were familiar with and packaged them nicely with a contemporary presentation. I remember in Joyous Celebration 2, we were recording in Durban and I had to do a certain number of songs and then a duet with Vuyo Mokoena and Vuyo was delaying backstage so I started singing choruses – known choruses, no rehearsals. I would start a chorus and the band would join in and everybody would sing; that worked for me then and I took note of it. Now if you follow my journey in Joyous Celebration you will notice that I do a lot of choruses, choruses that are known and add a twist to them and different packaging – that works.

Number 2 – We discovered that people love singalongs, so we don’t make our songs complex. We make them simple and singalong-ish.

Number 3 – We release the album first and subsequently do the tour, so that people can get the album and learn the songs so they come to the shows and sing-along. This makes them feel a part of the whole production.

Number 4 – We present an especially professional production in terms of sound, stage, lights, etc. Our production is big and everything on stage hits you hard. We don’t compromise on the quality of the production. It is our signature. When you are in the audience, it feels like you are on stage with us, that’s how we perform. We invite you on stage in terms of presentation so that even though you are not on stage with us, it feels like you are. That is why people leave our shows with hoarse voices, they were performing with us throughout the whole show.

All these elements are carefully put together, intentionally, in order to make the Joyous Celebration experience unique. That’s the winning formula.

I would like us to touch on Joyous Celebration 27 briefly. How was the composition of this album similar or different to previous projects, and what is the general feel of the album?

When we plan, we try not to shift away from a recipe that works and the recipe that people are used to.  For instance we recently did a show in Mafikeng, it’s a Sotho speaking space so we did Joyous Celebration but we included a lot of Sotho songs but those songs were done in a Joyous way. There is a particular way that Joyous Celebration does songs in terms of arrangements and production. Therefore the Joyous Celebration sound and feel does not change even if we’re doing a song that is predominately itende or a song with refined contemporary sound.

The biggest thing about Joyous 27 is that the songs are new, they are fresh, and we have people in the group that are known for certain sounds trying something new. For example, Siyakha Khitha is known for this Xhosa vibe that she brings and does so well but this time around she has done a song that is more towards the KZN/Swaziland-type of gospel known as itende, and she did an amazing job with it.

We try and spread the members of Joyous Celebration in terms of trying out new things so that they grow and also find themselves. Sometimes you find that a person with [us at] Joyous likes a certain type of sound or music, even so we look and listen to them and advise them to try this and that based on what we see in them and hear from them. Through this process, a lot of Joyous members have been able to find their feet in types of songs they never imagined themselves singing. You may remember Mkhululi Bhebhe; when he joined Joyous Celebration he liked these American worship songs and that’s the style he wanted to perform in and we said to him, ‘listen man you are from Zimbabwe and that is what we want to hear from you, give us your origin’. Initially he was reluctant but he heard us out and gave it a try. He went on to do songs like Itshokwadi which became an audience favourite. Now he is touring the world singing that type of music – Zim-inspired – music from home [where he comes from], and people love it.

So in Joyous 27 we did a lot of experimenting in terms of people singing songs that different to their ‘usual’. But there are others who are standard, like Sbu Noah. Sbu has found his type of gospel, it sits well with him and the people love him in that type of music, so we did not change that.

People will be thoroughly blessed and uplifted by Joyous Celebration 27.

Will there be any hard copies of the album available?

The world has gone digital but we are working on having CDs of the albums available at our shows for those who want to own a physical CD.

Why Hope and Victory as the title of Joyous Celebration 27 (JC27)?

We come from Covid even though it may seem like we have forgotten that we come from that pandemic. For the music industry and particularly for us as Joyous Celebration, there was a time where we thought we would never recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our production is very expensive and we are responsible for a lot of young people. What kept us going during that time and even now is hope. Hope kept us going in our darkest of hours, when it really looks like it’s not going to happen for us. We held on to the hope of the God that started this movement; because Joyous Celebration was not started by us, it was started by God. When you go into how Joyous all started we just wanted to say ‘thank you God for birthing a new South Africa’, we just wanted to do a show to say thank you God. Through that gratitude God planted a seed for us that has now grown over all these years. So when we said thank you, God started this movement called Joyous Celebration, so it’s really all about God. When things were down and really dark, we said ‘God, you started this movement and we hope that it’s not ending now’, and we held onto that hope, so the Hope part of JC27 comes from that.

The Victory part is born out of looking at where we are now. We have come out victorious from the pandemic, amongst other things. It’s also a message to people that says ‘it doesn’t matter what you’re going through right now, victory is certain if you attach your hope to God’. Out of hope comes victory.

Our shows are not just shows, they are spiritual experiences that we make available to people. You can come to the show with a heavy spirit and leave the show feeling so fresh because you were jumping around, singing, praising, praying, crying and connecting with God throughout the show. Victory comes from that .

So Hope and Victory, which make up JC27,  are rooted in our gratitude for making it out of a situation that seemed hopeless.

Now we are bold and victorious, knowing that people will come out in their numbers to join us at the Durban ICC. Over the years, they have carried us, they cried with us, they prayed with and for us, and now we are confident that God is going to do awe-inspiring work through JC27 and the Megafest. Ours is to maintain the hope, then victory will come.