Roger Levesque, Special to The Journal
Published: Monday, March 26, 2007
Their airline bookings may list 26 individuals but the sheer emotive force of the Soweto Gospel Choir has a singular message.
“Hope,” choir director Lucas Bok says simply.
“We ask that whatever your background, just come to our concerts and enjoy an evening of song. At the same time we want you to be inspired, to learn that life is short, to be enjoyed as best as you can.”
The group formed in 2002. Before the members were able to give up their day jobs as auto mechanics and bank tellers a few years ago, their only shared experience was singing in church choirs and growing up in Soweto, the poor black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.
In February, just as their third album African Spirit was released, the previous CD Blessed won them a Grammy Award for best traditional world music.
“It was a wonderful thing,” says Bok, who started singing in a church choir at age 9. Now he doubles on bass in addition to directing the group.
A typical concert includes songs in four or five languages, including English, Zulu and Sotho, from African-American gospel staples such as Amazing Grace and Oh Happy Day, to traditional South African folk numbers like Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight), popular songs of political consciousness like Peter Gabriel’s Biko, and maybe even the South African national anthem. Colourful costumes and dancing add a potent visual element.
“We formed the choir to showcase traditional South African music and we have focused on that,” Bok says. “But we know now that we can meet the challenge to adapt almost any song and make it our own.”
World music fans may hear the strains of the township pop-jazz step mbaqanga filter through. Recently, the choir has also incorporated a few pieces of kwaito, South Africa’s spin on hip-hop. Expect the call-response patterns common in American gospel, blues and worksongs. There are also inevitable echoes of their compatriots Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but the 15 female singers of SGC ensure there’s a bigger range of voices.
Whatever the song, Bok feels the human voice can communicate beyond words or language.
“The human voice is created by God, but it took me a while to understand the idea that it was created to praise God. Something about it can captivate you and take you to a place of tranquility in your mind and spirit. I believe it is the best musical instrument ever created.”
From initial concerts in South Africa to an early date at the opera house in Sydney, Australia, rave reviews quickly built the choir’s reputation. They have performed for Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (their official patron), for pop stars such as Peter Gabriel and Diana Ross, and on American television.
Bono joins the choir on a version of U2’s One on the new album African Spirit, a vibrant set that also includes takes on Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, Bob Marley’s One Love and Jimmy Cliff’s Sitting In Limbo, along with American traditional tunes like Balm In Gilead and Zulu devotional songs. Fans of the pop tunes may be surprised at the unique way the group harmonized that material.
The choir’s Edmonton debut for Global Arts at the Winspear Tuesday is part of their third North American tour and a very busy itinerary that Bok concedes has been trying at times.
“It puts a strain on some members of the group, but after all this time we are really like our own family on the road now.”
Ultimately, the title African Spirit also reflects the choir members’ pride in their origins, and a wish to re-orient the common world view of South Africa and the African continent as a trouble spot.
“Everybody is aware that we suffer from adversity but at the end of the day it’s what we do with the situation that is going to make us a stronger nation and better people as Africans. I firmly believe that Africa is going to rise up to become a force that the world will reckon with.
“Given where we come from and the struggles that we have been through we are living examples that it is possible to become higher and stronger and better than people expect.”