April 6, 2006
By Rick Massimo
Since forming in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir has toured the world, won international awards and performed with such stars as Bono, Peter Gabriel, Queen and Jimmy Cliff.
The choir also makes a huge noise on its second album, Blessed — at least a dozen voices cover a huge vocal and stylistic range, including traditional South African songs, township jive, European gospel songs such as “O Happy Day” and “I Bid You Goodnight,” the Zulu classic “Mbube” (the template for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” for which writer Solomon Linda finally got his posthumous due last month) and the South African national anthem.
But the common denominator is joy.
“If you look at all that’s happening in the world, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just crazy, and people seem like there’s no hope, and they’re paranoid,” says conductor and assistant musical director Lucas Bok. “And we’re like, ‘Come on; we’ve been through a struggle, we’ve been through it all, and God has carried us through. So enjoy your life and make the most of it.’
“Because that’s how people are living back home — they’re trying to catch up with lost time, trying to enjoy life, trying to do things. Going out there and making a difference wherever they can.
“So that’s what we’re trying to tell the world: Let’s do it, man. Because we can.”
THE CHOIR IS on its second tour of the United States and has made appearances at major festivals as well as on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “The audiences are very awesome in the States,” Bok says.
The choir concerts include narration, to explain the context and history of the songs, Bok says. “But music, as we all know, is a universal language; it seems to take over and people just cry all the way [through]. I know they don’t understand the words we’re singing, but they just seem to relate to what we’re showcasing on stage.”
The point of the choir, Bok says, was to show the world that there was more to South Africa than the struggle against apartheid and the sometimes-difficult transition to democracy that followed.
“People know the bad things about Soweto, and the struggle stuff, but they don’t know that there’s talent and all of this stuff happening. So it was an opportunity for some young people to showcase their talents. . . .
“There’s a lot of hope and excitement because people are able to do right now things that they couldn’t do a few years ago. So right now, Soweto is not one of the biggest tourist attractions in South Africa.
“But at the same time, people who are from Soweto now have something to live for. They have life, in all the essences of the word ‘life.’ So Soweto right now is a place I wouldn’t leave.”
THE CHOIR RANGES in age from 20 to 46. “So we’ve got guys who really know the history, who were there in the struggle, and the younger generation which is getting to do better than the others.”
After apartheid and before the first election, Bok says, “there was a very scary stage, because people didn’t know what to expect. Especially for [people my age], because we were all in high school and stuff. . . .
“We were prepared for civil war, and we didn’t know what was going to take place. But God had a better plan, and we were fortunate . . . and we’ve moved on as a nation.”
In other regions of Africa, the post-colonial era has resulted in despotism and civil wars, but Bok says South Africa was largely spared. There was a struggle against apartheid, “but we didn’t fight between ourselves and destroy our own kind. . . . I think that destroys the country as a whole. . . .
“I think we were fortunate enough that our people stood together as one.”
And the music was helped by that, Bok says. In a peaceful, stable country, cultural and musical exchange was easier.
“International music is something that we grew up with. . . . It has always been a big part of us, because South Africa has always been open to international stuff. . . .
“A lot of people haven’t heard our kind of gospel, so we try to do a lot of that so we can showcase our country and what we’re about.” But the choir also involves audiences in sing-alongs with “O Happy Day” and “I Bid You Goodnight.”
Bok grew up listening to the American gospel of The Mighty Clouds of Joy and The Winans. “We are a bunch of talented people, willing to learn anything. We listen all the time, and we do our own stuff as well. . . .
“The international audience [can] see the heart of our people because of the way that we responded.”