24 March 2006
By Al Hunter Jr.
Philadelphia Daily News
Though tempting to compare the two South African groups, Lucas Bok says there’s “a big difference” between his Soweto Gospel Choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“During the time of the struggle, they [Ladysmith Black Mambazo] were singing songs of liberation, of struggle,” Bok said in a telephone interview. The “struggle” was the fight against apartheid, a social and political system that segregated blacks and whites in South Africa for 46 years. It officially ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s president.
“We’re coming with hope and optimism,” Bok said. “We come with a total different message. In a way [Ladysmith Black Mambazo] were chosen for that specific time to do what they did then… . They made a way for us. We’re here with another message.”
Bok is musical director and bassist for the 25-member Soweto Gospel Choir, which sings Christ’s praises in six South African languages. The choir performs at the Annenberg Center tomorrow.
AIDS is foremost in the choir’s fund-raising efforts. Their tours and recordings help raise money for Nkosi’s Haven/Vukani. The charity helps AIDS orphans.
They are ambassadors for former President Mandela’s 46664 Foundation, a campaign to raise AIDS/HIV awareness. (46664 was Mandela’s number while he was incarcerated for 18 years in Cape Town.)
The group’s first album, “Voices From Heaven,” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s World Music chart in the U.S. The choir’s second CD, “Blessed,” was released in January. Along with rich songs sung in Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, and Sotho, “Blessed” includes renditions of “Oh Happy Day,””Khumbaya” and “A Place In Heaven” sung in English.
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s impassioned a cappela singing, as well as its dancing, have found receptive audiences around the world. Language is no object, Bok said.
“They don’t understand our language, but they feel connected to it still,” he said. “They feel they are a part of it. And the fact that God is on our side helps.”
Plus, “Once we get on stage and start singing, you can’t fake that stuff.”
Many people may be surprised to find a South African group singing about Christianity. In the mainstream media, much is made of South Africa’s factions and legacy of apartheid, but little about the country’s Christianity.
“A lot of people just don’t understand the history of South Africa as a whole,” Bok said. “Christianity has been in South Africa for years… . Christianity has been one of the cornerstones of the region.”
The challenge of singing in six languages is to get the diction right, Bok said. “Singing is not that bad, it’s [speaking] the language that’s the problem.”
And certain languages work best with certain songs. For example, Xhosa, with its “click” sounds, goes well with up-tempo tunes, Bok said. And for a more reverent, worshipful feel, the Sotho language seems to be appropriate.
The choir, composed of people mostly in their 20s, spends most of its time on the road. It’s on the downside of a 44-city North American tour.
“It dosn’t matter where we’re at,” Bok said. “We try to capture [the audience] and bring the audience in. We seem to take over.”