5 October 2004
It is a mark of the success of Soweto Gospel Choir that they’re usually anywhere but Soweto.
When I catch assistant choirmaster Lucas Deon Bok on his mobile, he’s on the tour bus headed from Derby to Manchester and will arrive in Glasgow, via a few other cities, in time for their gig at the Royal Concert Hall on Thursday. The choir haven’t been home since they arrived in Scotland for their second Edinburgh Fringe and, after their UK tour, they’ll go home for a couple of weeks before touring Europe and then America for three months.
Fortunately, they travel well. “I love travelling and performing, I think that’s what keeps us going as a choir,” says Bok. “Everybody is passionate about what we do, but, yes, I’m very homesick. I keep it a secret and it’s not affecting the performance.”
Their brand of gospel also goes the distance. Rooted in the traditional African sound, the choir combine various styles of gospel from churches in Soweto and have recently begun adding contemporary songs to their repertoire, some of which address South Africa’s political past. These made their debut at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“It worked out exceptionally well,” says Bok. “People opened their hearts and received it. Growth is what music is all about, and as artists we need to grow. We’ll always be trying something new and improving on what we have. The previous year was our debut, so people were excited, but this time around people knew what to expect and the second time around we gave them much more than they expected. It was good for us and people loved the show.”
The choir have built a loyal international following that could only have been dreamed of when they were formed just two years ago by choirmaster David Mulovhedzi, who runs a number of choirs in the township. He held auditions for singers from all the gospel choirs of local churches and eventually whittled them down to 26 singers of various ages and experience (some had already toured with music and dance troupes abroad; others had never been on an aeroplane).
They have since sold out tours in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Europe, and were named the Best Gospel Choir 2003 at the American Gospel Music Awards. They’ve raised thousands for their own charity, Vukani Foundation, which helps Aids orphans at home.
When asked, everyone in the choir will say that they had no idea how successful they would be, and Bok is no exception. “It’s amazing,” he says. “Who would have thought it? Sometimes people undermine what they possess, but we’ve been like this all along and we’ve been discovered by the world. It’s a great calling for us and we find it very exciting that people accept us and our music the way they do. It’s wonderful.”
As assistant choirmaster, part of Bok’s job description is to keep the lively choir in order during their back-to-back tours. The first time he answered the phone from the tour bus, his voice was drowned out by what sounded like loud R’n’B (possibly Nelly’s Hot In Herre).
“Sometimes people can be out of control but not all the time,” he says, having told his fellow choir members to turn off the music. “It’s not fighting or anything; it’s usually people going out beyond the curfew of 11.30-midnight. I enjoy being part of the management and keeping them in order, but performing is the heartbeat.”
Soweto Gospel Choir play the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, on Thursday.