24 Mar 2008
Margaret von Klemperer
Members of the Rugby World Cup team who had local connections were fêted by the city when they returned from France — but the man who for the past two years has been on stage at the Grammy Awards to collect a Grammy for South Africa slips in and out of Eastwood when he comes home, unrecognised except by his community. It is a sad comment on the way the arts are regarded, but it is also a compliment to the unpretentious nature of the man.
Lucas Bok, the musical director of the Soweto Gospel Choir, came to Eastwood from Kimberley when he was two years old. He was educated at Eastwood Primary and Secondary schools and from an early age he knew he had a gift for music and longed to make it his life. And he has. On February 10 in Los Angeles, he collected a Grammy for the second time on behalf of the choir, for the CD African Spirit in the Best Traditional World Music category.
“My Dad taught me guitar when I was seven,” says Bok. He progressed to singing and playing at school assemblies, with school and church choirs, and like most boys with musical talent, to forming a group with his friends — In Harmony. “My father wasn’t formally trained either,” he says. “But both of us could follow music by ear.” Later, he had some training at the East Side College in Johannesburg and a few private lessons, and he can read a musical score, but, as with most of the choir members, following music by ear comes naturally.
In 1995, Bok was part of Gospel Explosion, a project that combined a number of choirs in the Pietermaritzburg area, singing gospel music. And all along he was looking for ways to make music his career. At Tech in Durban, he studied sound engineering and did a course in how to be a DJ. “I still wanted to do music, but it gave me something else — if I didn’t make it as a musician, I could be a sound engineer,” he says.
“I asked God, who gave me this gift, what I should do. Everything about me is music,” says Bok. So he decided the time had come to try his luck and open a music school. He approached the principal of Eastwood Primary and the school agreed that as a former pupil, he should be helped. “They gave me space to work and I taught music.”
Young, single and keen to take his ideas further, Bok headed for the City of Gold. “I was fortunate. I had a couple of interviews, and they went well.” And then came an offer from the Pentecostal church. It was close to where he was living and the choir there was struggling with a song that Bok knew, and had already done in Pietermaritzburg. So he went round to help.
“One guy was listening to me — I didn’t know it, but he was the pastor. He wanted to know who I was and then he offered me a job as music director for his church.”
It was a lucky break. Bok was with the big, wealthy church for two years. Well-known names came to perform and Bok got to know figures in the music industry and received encouragement from other musicians who told him he should go for it — he had the talent.
“I was waiting for the right time and opportunity. Then, five years ago, the Soweto Gospel Choir was being formed and I was chosen. I’ve been with them right from the start.” Bok was a bass guitarist and a tenor voice to begin with, but Beverley Bryer, the choir’s executive producer and director, had her eye on him as a man with a future. “She gave me the chance to conduct,” he says. And not just to conduct anywhere. Bok led the choir for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival where the Soweto Gospel Choir was listed as the critics’ choice in all major publications.
For Bok, the secret of the choir’s success comes down to determination and discipline — and an ethos that sees them give their all every time they sing. “It’s as if it’s the last time we will perform, each time.”
“The genre of our music is simple, but we are preserving the inheritance and sound of South Africa. When people overseas hear an African choir, it has to live up to the identity we have created. People fall in love with our sound.”
In June last year, Bok married Michelle, also from Eastwood. He had been at school with her brother and says that when they matriculated, he never imagined he would end up marrying a schoolmate’s sister. The marriage has brought a change in lifestyle. Instead of travelling all the time with the choir on its regular tours around the world, he now spends more time in Johannesburg — and there are more chances for the Boks to come home to Pietermaritzburg. But he is still busy, with the choir and with his plans — one day he would love to have his own record label.
He is a man who has achieved much — few people will ever be able to say they have received two Grammy awards. But ask Bok when he is happiest, and although he says getting the Grammys was incredibly exciting, and something that will never go away, his greatest thrill is to sit in an audience and look at great art, other people unleashing their talent. It is the response of a genuine and generous man.