Louis R Carlozo
Mar 9, 2007
It’s a long way from grooving to Stevie Wonder records as a kid in South Africa’s Zulu territory to entertaining serious notions of playing with the Motown legend. But Lucas Bok has every reason to believe the dream will come true, what with his Soweto Gospel Choir fresh off their Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album (2006’s “Blessed,” on Shanachie Records).
“Stevie’s been my favorite since a young age-11 or 12 years old,” says Bok, 29, the choir’s assistant music director and bassist. “I was a developing musician, I had been singing at competitions and in a church choir.” Listening to Wonder, he recalls, “I felt completely understood. There was something that captured me, and made me feel that you could do anything if you believed in yourself. I remember the song that really, really caught me: it was ‘He’s Misstra Know- It-All’ It stuck with me for life.”
With the choir rubbing musical elbows with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Diana Ross and Jimmy Cliff, it’s no wonder Bok has his eyes set on his boyhood idol. Consider that the group-which comes to Symphony Center Sunday-has only been around for five years.
“We’re looking forward to collaborating with some big names really soon,” Bok says. “We didn’t expect all this to happen, and it’s such a short space of time from our beginnings. It’s really mind blowing.”
Two years ago this month, the choir played on the Far South Side at the Christ Universal Temple, in conjunction with the DuSable Museum of African American History-and established itself as more than just a musical force. “It was on the South Side where [gospel music pioneer] Thomas Dorsey composed the standard, ‘Precious Lord,'” says DuSable president and CEO Antoinette D. Wright. “April 2005 marked the 11-year anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa-a struggle that mirrored and would later be influenced by the civil rights movement. Hosting the Soweto Gospel Choir follows in the museum’s tradition … in this case, gospel music is the means of exploring the common [bonds] of art forms and…experiences that shape them.”
Beyond Amercan gospel, the Western inspirations of Bok (he’s also a Jackson 5 fan) and company bloom full flower in the choir’s sound. On its latest CD “African Spirit” (Shanachie), the 26-member ensemble dips, as you might expect, into Zulu and Sotho traditions that span centuries-often rendered with little more than voices and hand percussion.
But there’s also the unexpected live pairing with U2’s Bono in a very western-pop version of “One,” played faithful to the tempo and key of the hit. Just this week, the choir finished another session with Bono, recording “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
The Soweto Gospel Choir’s formula is not so much rattle and hum as just plain hum-especially when arranging stirring traditionals such as “Seteng Sediba.” “Our music is really spontaneous,” Bok says. “Our musicians won’t write down a score, so that might start with someone saying, ‘Let me hum this to you and see what comes out.’ You work on that, and then it gets organized.”
Witnessed live, the choir puts heavy emphasis on festive, colorful dress and soaring spirituality. There’s an ecumenical element to the approach-you don’t have to be of any particular religion to appreciate it-though Bok says he and his compatriots draw on Christian traditions, just as American gospel groups do.
“Christianity has played such an important role in our lives,” Bok says. “We’re God-fearing people: We believe. Between the showcases, we’re not doing ministry. Still we want to share our message, so that you leave feeling fulfilled-whether you believe in Jesus Christ as well, or no.”