AS we alight upon the 33rd anniversary of the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland it’s interesting to note how separated African music was from the mainstream pop music world of the West.
Certainly we’re now in an age where the type of cultural and musical cross-pollination Simon employed is commonplace.
The emergence of preppy white boy quartet Vampire Weekend a decade ago with their amalgam of Congolese soukous and rumba rhythms, while bold and striking, was hardly alien.
Graceland emerged three years before Peter Gabriel founded Real World Records, the acme of world music labels.
Even after half a decade of the WOMAD festival, was it Graceland that convinced him of the appetite for more far flung sounds and rhythms?
Bob Marley may have been conquering the world with reggae music and George Harrison may have been fond of his sitar, but Graceland represented a true musical exchange.
The album was not without controversy, as Simon came under criticism for breaking the cultural boycott of Apartheid era South Africa, but this move did expose the wider world to the legendary vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Crystal Kassi, choir director and co-founder of the London African Gospel Choir, sees the album as a “kind of a symbol of freedom and liberty in the time of Apartheid. A bit challenging to what was going on and breaking barriers, exposing the South African musicians to the rest of the world. He opened doors.”
In the wake of the 30th anniversary of Graceland, the London African Gospel Choir were invited by the Camden Jazz Café to present their own interpretation of the album.
When it came to putting their stamp on it, Kassi says she paid particular attention to the mise en scène, as she puts it en Français.
She explains: “It’s like how you organise a show, how you distribute everybody on the stage. How we’re introducing each song and associate the song to the personality of the singer who is going to sing the song. And then just introducing the singers one by one and then we grow into having everybody onstage. It’s a building up of the show.”
The show they are bringing to Ireland consists of eight musicians and eight singers, which is not far off their full 20-person set up.
Initially asked to do one show, they found the concept excited huge demand with audiences and they went on to do six shows.
“The audience loves it,” says Kassi, who never anticipated the level of response.
“If you look at the reviews on Facebook. Some of them say we should be prescribed by the NHS. People come out and they’re just joyful and happy. That’s the feeling you have when you leave the show.”
Joy and happiness is the bedrock of the choir, who were founded to London’s African community to promote the gospel, create a platform of excellence for African gospel singers and musicians, and popularise the African interpretations of gospel music.
As a Christian, the church and way of worship is integral to their approach and style.
“Worship in Africa is always very lively,” she relates.
“There’s a lot of talent; there’s a lot of good music. It’s just to share what’s in the church with the rest of the world. Because most often when you hear about gospel music you hear about the traditional American style of singing.
“You don’t really hear or see the African way of worshipping. I just wanted to bring that into the open and that’s how we started the London African Gospel Choir.”
She adds: “The way we worship is more like singing and dancing. There’s a lot of dancing, lively music. Yeah, a lot of singing and dancing and clapping and it’s really, really joyful. And we sing in different languages. Zulu, Swahili, English…”
The choir features members from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Guadeloupe.
This informs the vast repertoire of music they choose from and it’s usually Kassi who decides it.
Guiding her in her choices is “the message in the music mostly, and the style of music. Uplifting messages, encouraging.”
The choir usually sing their own songs, from their own repertoire, and apart from an anniversary concert in honour of Bob Marley, the Graceland concert is a rare exception to this.
It also sees them make their second visit to Ireland after appearing at All Together Now in 2018.
“We find that a lot of people know the entire album,” notes Kassi.
“They know all the songs of the album. They know all the lyrics. They’re all singing along. It’s a very popular album.”
London African Gospel Choir present Graceland at Cork Opera House on Friday August 30.
Also performs August 26 at Ulster Hall, Belfast; August 27 at National Concert Hall Dublin;. August 28 at Leisureland, Galway; and August 29 at Dolan’s, Limerick.