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Heavenly voices from Soweto 

Looking past Ladysmith

For most people, there's only one South African vocal group. Ladysmith Black Mambazo set the standard for South African vocal music, but the 32-member Soweto Gospel Choir is ready to challenge their position. Although the harmonies are similar, there is a difference. "We got ladies; they only got guys," laughs assistant choirmaster/musical director Lucas Deon Bok. But the gender issue isn't the only thing that sets the two groups apart. "We're a little more vibrant in the stuff that we do because we're a young choir, so there's a different feel to our music," Bok says during a tour stop in Germany last week.

While Ladysmith stays mostly within the confines of traditional African music, the Soweto Gospel Choir experiments with more contemporary styles. On their debut release, Voices From Heaven, the ensemble mixes traditional tribal gospel and folk songs with a multicultural stew that incorporates American elements (Otis Redding's version of Curtis Mayfield's "Amen"), Jamaican elements (Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross") and a newly-minted South African style called township jive.

Bok calls the music kweito, and compares it to hip hop. "It's very vibrant. It's young music. It has actually been created by the youth of South Africa. It's something that has been underground, but now it's a big hype at home. We also got that element because I also write songs for artists like that as well, so it's one thing I could bring along to the choir and try to vibe it up and keep it young."

The Soweto Choir is a young organization, with most members in their early 20s. While age is not a criterion for choir membership ("Basically, you have to be able to sing quite well," Bok says), because of the group's extensive travel schedule, it helps to be young with few ties. After the 35-city U.S. tour, the group heads to Spain, then Australia for three months. Bok says the group is booked worldwide through 2006.

Though the group's main theme is gospel, they dabble in politics a bit as well. Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" was added to the repertoire due to its relevance. "Everybody knows the struggles that South Africans had to go through, and that was a great song then and is a great song now," Bok says. "We can relate to that, because we had a lot of problems to go through, so look where we are today." Everybody in the choir was very emotional while performing the song live with Cliff last year. "We could relate to the song, and now were doing it with the guy who actually did the song--so it was phenomenal."

The upcoming show at Duke's Page Auditorium will be the choir's first visit to America. "I'm looking forward to a lot of black people that enjoy music together and shout. I'm looking forward to being inspired, hoping we can meet guys who are into music and they will come out to our shows and will be uplifted by us and that we can speak to them and be uplifted by each other. I'm looking not for an easy audience, but an audience that knows music and are gonna be good listeners."

As much as he enjoys spreading the gospel abroad, Bok looks forward to entertaining at home as well. The choir has been shipped away overseas so much they haven't performed much at home. "The highlight for 2005 is that we can be performing in front of our own people," the assistant choirmaster says. "Because sometimes, people at home, we don't cherish what we have. But the rest of the world does."

The Soweto Gospel Choir plays Duke's Page Auditorium Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 downstairs, $20 balcony, $5 Duke students.Call 684-4444 or go to www.tickets.duke.edu.

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