WHITEMARSH The audience at St. Thomas Church in Whitemarsh clapped loudly for the holiday songs the Keystone State Boychoir sang at its three concerts Saturday. But the loudest applause came after the songs they sang to honor Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and antiapartheid leader, who died Thursday at 95.

The choir cut out part of the sing-along portion of the concert and a few songs to make time for the tribute, but the audience didn't seem to mind. Hands clapped, heads nodded, and feet tapped as the boys danced and drummed to the South African songs.

The choir sold 742 tickets for the three shows, officials said.

Making the change in the program was an obvious decision for Steven Fisher, the choir's associate music director, who met Mandela and has taken groups of the 180-member choir on two concert tours to South Africa - in 2001 and 2011. He also has traveled to South Africa during the last 20 years as part of a program in which music directors spend a summer in townships in the country, making music with the people there.

Fisher said when he met Mandela 12 years ago, he learned of something Mandela did with many people he encountered. "When he extends his arm and shakes your hand," Fisher told the audience, "before you can say anything, he says, 'I'm never going to wash this hand again.' "

Fisher said he has written a musical about Mandela's life. He was in choir rehearsal when he heard about the South African leader's death. "It was like a grandfather died," Fisher said.

"When you're a choral person, South Africa has such a vibrant tradition," Fisher said. It is one of only a handful of places where music helped bring change, he said.

Among holiday favorites such as "White Christmas" and "O Holy Night," the choir also sang the Jewish folk song "Hava Nagila." To remember Mandela, the choir sang the songs "Nelson Mandela," "Hope for Resolution," the antiapartheid song "Weeping," and "Sho Sho Loza," a song that has special meaning in the antiapartheid struggle.

Choir member Noah Shipley, 15, said his trip to South Africa in 2011 was "incredible."

"The best part was meeting the people and making music with them," he said. "They would just come and sing along with us."

Kidder Erdman, 17, of Gladwyne, also went on that trip. "Between the music and the beauty, it was life-changing," he said.

As soon as Erdman heard Mandela had died, he texted Fisher to ask if the choir could sing a few songs in tribute to Mandela at the concert. "It wouldn't be right if we didn't," Erdman said.

The choir has sung on every continent, and this season's tour will include India and Australia. The boys, ages 8 to 18, practice in Germantown but come from across the region, from Sewell, Gloucester County, to Philadelphia to the Main Line.

South Africa always has a strong presence in the choir. One word all the boys know is ubuntu, which means that a connection to other people makes one human.

"That," Fisher said, using Mandela's clan name, "is what Madiba would want us to take from his life."

mbond@philly.com

610-313-8105 @MichaelleBond