1 March 2007
A little more than four years ago, Lucas Bok was an inconspicuous director of a church choir in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Two weeks ago, he crossed the Staples Center stage in Los Angeles to collect a Grammy.
Bok was in L.A. on behalf of the Soweto Gospel Choir, the upstart South African collective of which he is now assistant music director as well as a lead singer and bassist.
The choir itself — currently on a 47-city North American tour that includes a sold-out concert in Ottawa tomorrow — was in Macon, Georgia, when it won the Best Traditional World
Music Grammy for its sophomore album, Blessed.
“When I called,” says Bok, “everyone was screaming, rolling on the floor, jumping. They had a performance that night, and I believe they were just off the walls.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir has never had an aversion to letting ‘er rip. Athletic dance numbers and the swirl of brilliantly coloured traditional garb accent its concerts, underscoring the choir’s vigorously rhythmic music with its four-part harmonies, big bass voices, vocal clicks and trills.
The choir sings its traditional repertoire in several African languages. The 26 members, most of them in their 20s, turn to English for tunes like Bob Dylan’s I’ll Remember You and Jimmy Cliff’s Sitting in Limbo. You’ll find this happy mix on the choir’s just-released third album, African Spirit.
The CD also contains a live recording of the Soweto Gospel Choir’s performance of the U2 hit One, with Bono handling the lead vocal. It was recorded at the 46664 concert in South Africa in 2003, as part of Nelson Mandela’s Aids Awareness Campaign. (The choir is committed to fighting the ravages of Aids in South Africa).
“We changed a couple of harmonies in the background and gave Zulu arrangements of lyrics,” says Bok. “Bono loved it. It was, like, ‘Wow. I see what you’re saying, but I don’t know what you’re saying.’ I explained, ‘We’re saying the same thing you’re saying.'”
Language clearly no barrier, the choir has enjoyed an extraordinary reception in North America since releasing its debut album, Voices From Heaven, in 2005. That record soared to No. 1 on the Billboard World Music charts, followed by a Carnegie Hall show that sold out six months in advance.
The choir’s current North American tour is its third in three years.
“Our gospel has a tendency of making people feel good,” says Bok.
Spurring positive feelings is, of course, the sine qua non of Afro-American gospel as well, but Bok says his group’s music is simpler, especially in terms of harmonies, and more inclusive in its influences.
He likewise contrasts the Soweto Gospel Choir with such longer-established groups as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“Our harmony arrangements are different on traditional songs. We kept the melody the same as our grandparents would have sung it and added some kind of vibe for today.”
The Soweto Gospel Choir understands vibe. In that 46664 concert, they backed not just Bono but also Peter Gabriel and Queen.
Bok himself grew up listening to a blend of traditional and religious music (his father was both a minister and a musician) and western pop. “Even the Jackson Five. I had this little small voice, so I wanted to be Michael Jackson.”
Bok, who joined the choir shortly after it was formed in 2002, is also aware of the complex history of traditional African music. He notes the 19th century arrival of European colonizers and missionaries led to a fusion of western religious and traditional African music.
Then, during the latter days of apartheid, music became a potent force in battling oppression.
“In the time of the struggle, there was no way a bunch of black people could gather because they (the ruling whites) thought there was going to be an uprising. So church was a place we could go, and songs would be sung that would give our politicians the guts and knowing that there were people behind them to try and make a change.”
The goal of the Soweto Gospel Choir, Bok says, is to offer hope to a troubled world.
“We know where we came from as a nation in South Africa. And if things like that happened to us, it can happen to anyone around the world. Making the world know there’s no mountain too high that God cannot move, that’s our message.”
That surge of possibility, says Bok, is pretty much what happens every time he takes lead and the choir — in a variation of gospel’s trademark call-and response — swells behind him.
“Oh man, your soul just gets uplifted. It doesn’t matter what you’re challenged with, you feel so bold, so confident. You just let go. Sometimes you do notes that you never thought you could reach.”
The Ottawa Jazz Festival presents the Soweto Gospel Choir at Dominion-Chalmers United Church tomorrow.
The show is sold out.