Santa Barbara Independent
By Josef Woodard, April 5, 2007
A Conversation with Lucas Bok of the Soweto Gospel Choir Founded in late 2002, the suddenly hot and internationally mobile Soweto Gospel Choir may be a globally aware but locally grounded 21st-century model of a hip, genre-bounding choir. As heard on its Grammy-nabbing Blessed and the new African Spirit, the 26-voice choir moves laterally between South African choral and folk traditions, gospel music with American roots, and stirs in touches of pop and R&B, but without the dreaded crossover trivialization in the process.
Rather, the group uncovers implicit root systems throughout the African diaspora, including the very DNA of American pop music. Musical heritage aside, the sound is big, rich, and heartwarming, as the Campbell Hall audience will hear when the choir hits that stage next Wednesday.
Bass Lucas Bok spoke to The Independent from his hotel room in Calgary, Alberta, recently.
How popular is choral music in South Africa? Is there a big audience for what you do?
Yes. Our people love that kind of music, so there is a big market. There are a lot of choirs, and a lot of talent. People are looking to make it or break it with their talent. The support for the kind of music we do back home is phenomenal. People go out of their way to purchase tickets for concerts.
On your latest album, African Spirit, the group nicely weaves gospel music, South African sounds, and R&B. Was that blending prospect always part of the group’s mission?
You know, when we were formed, the only English songs we did were “Amazing Grace” and “Many Rivers to Cross.” Those were on our first album. We were pretty good at taking an international song and making it our own, and we wanted to keep doing that. We tried to find more songs, tried to use more material people were not touching, like the Bob Dylan song, “Forever Young.” The lyrics of the song are so good. We were always scouting for songs like that.
Your new album also features a Bono cameo on “One,” a natural addition to the songbook.
Yeah, we were really fortunate. We performed that song at the AIDS campaign concerts, and we were backing almost everybody — Bono, Queen, Anastasia, the Eurhythmics, Peter Gabriel. They gave us the liberty to do our own thing with the song [“One”], and when Bono heard it at the rehearsal, he fell in love with it. So he gave us permission to put it on our album.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo remains the superstar group in that vocal South African scene, right?
Yeah, those are the icons, man. Those are the guys who really paved the way for us, along with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. We’re always grateful for them, and we salute them.
But your music is different, of course, because of the scale of the group and the material, wouldn’t you say?
Yeah. We seem to be the ones ushering in where South Africa is right now, the sound of the South African people. It is different from anything you’ve heard before. Right now, people are so full of optimism and things are going right for us. That’s the sound you hear from us.
The mix of songs and styles doesn’t sound like a stretch, which suggests the cross influences of African and American genres go back and forth with ease.
Yeah, we try all this to maintain our culture, being African in South Africa. We try to keep that alive. It’s easy for us to cross over because to be a musician, you have to be flexible, you’ve got to be competent, and you’ve got to be able to take on different styles.
But at the end of the day, you also need to have your identity.
And that is what the Soweto Gospel Choir keeps alive and keeps going: our identity.
People identify with us everywhere because we can do whatever song and whatever melody, but we always try to do our best to keep it as African as we can and keep it the way we sing it.
How has the musical environment changed since apartheid?
After that, one of the genres that came up was kwaito, a very young, hip-hop orientated style.
There has been another genre called Afro jazz. We have very good jazz musicians, but they have come up with a different soul to it. There are other genres which have come up. The world needs to hear those, as well.
So the styles of music have changed, in many ways. But the influence of music is still the same.
Music is very powerful back home.
South Africa does seem like one of those musical power spots in the world.
Why do you think that is?
[Laughs.] We’re from the south, man.