By Andy Thompson
February 16, 2007
Lucas Bok considers himself blessed in many ways. He sees what has happened to him over the past five years as nothing short of miraculous evidence of God’s hand at work in the world.
Nothing is as dazzling, Bok said, as how fast it all has happened.
In October 2002, Bok was the director of a church choir in the Soweto region of Johannesburg, South Africa. Now he’s the assistant musical director of the Soweto Gospel Choir, an almost overnight sensation in world music.
Bok and the 25 other members of the choir have sung U2’s “One” with Bono at an AIDS benefit concert. They’ve sold out Carnegie Hall and recently performed on “The Tonight Show.”
Their first album, “Voices From Heaven,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard World Music Chart in 2005. On Sunday, their second album, “Blessed,” won a Grammy Award in the Best Traditional World Music category.
Bok and the group are in the midst of a 47-stop North American tour, promoting their third album, “African Spirit.”
They’ll perform at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center at 7:30 p.m. Monday. As with the group’s concert here last year, Monday’s show has long been sold out.
Bok recently talked about the choir and its work:
Q. You sell out shows everywhere you go, even though your first album just came out in 2005. What is it about your choir and your music that has connected with audiences so profoundly and so quickly?
A. There’s something about the choir that just captures people’s hearts. We do the best we can to try to tell our story through song. We always try to keep the energy going and keep the spirit high. We put the crowd before ourselves. We correspond with the audience.
Every album and subsequent tour seems to build on the success of the previous one. Is it amazing to think how far you’ve come in such a short time?
I’m really dazzled by it. I knew it was going to happen someday, but not so soon. I’m very grateful unto God because he’s the one that lifted us up. It must be God’s grace and God’s hand upon us.
There are some songs on the new album that will be familiar to American ears, as well as some traditional South African songs. How would you describe this album, “African Spirit”?
They are very spiritual songs, very soulful. . . . We need to get together as a people, not just as a nation, but as a people of the world. It doesn’t matter which background you come from music has the power to bring people together. That’s what we are trying to say in [the song] “World Union.”
How is this album different from your first two, “Voices From Heaven” and “Blessed”?
The first one we had just got together. We were so fresh. It was very light, with traditional African songs. The second album was very different. At that time, we were celebrating 10 years of South African democracy. We felt very blessed, so we tried to convey that on that album, with songs like “Kumbaya.” With this album, it’s now a global problem with terrorism and everything. We are in a struggle, and we need to contribute to the world and the world struggle.
You’ve performed in venues all across the world. Is there one memory that stands out from the past three years?
The performances we have for school kids. That really stands out, because they’re so happy to see us and so into the performances.
The charity the group established also focuses on children. Tell us about it.
After our first tour, we felt that God has blessed us. Now we can better our community and help our country. As you know, AIDS is just running crazy in Africa and we felt it was important that we give back and get involved. So we formed our own organization called Vukani. It’s a Zulu word that basically means “arrive” or “wake up.” We raise funds, and when we go back home we donate to AIDS orphan charities that don’t have government funding.
What was it like singing with Bono?
That was really great, because we didn’t expect to be part of the [46664 concert in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2003]. When we got there, we were supposed to sing backup with Queen. But when Bono heard us he was intrigued, so we actually got to sing with him. It was something very great, a dream come true standing on that big stage. We were honored to sing with someone like Bono.