The London African Gospel Choir was founded to help promote the gospel among London’s African community with the aim of taking African interpretations of gospel music to a wider audience. Their London-based shows of Paul Simon’s Graceland album sell out in minutes and their performance of this now 30-year old album have garnered rave reviews.
Leaving aside the on-going and often heated debates about whether Paul Simon used this album to promote the music of South Africa or simply plunder it, this looked like an intriguing concert from the moment it was announced by CQAF. I was interested to see how the choir would work with the songs, and what the possible comparison might be between them and the wonderful vocal work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the original recordings.
The band take the stage for an instrumental introduction and are then joined by the 8-strong choir. The first half of this evening’s performance is a fairly straight mix of African and European styled gospel music, with the centerpiece being a mix up of “I Need Your Love” and the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell song “You’re All I Need to Get By”.
I was struck at this point by how quiet and subdued the audience were, with each track receiving a polite but not wildly enthusiastic round of applause. Even the more upbeat songs failed to provoke much of a response. It’s strange to see a sold out crowd in the marquee so quiet and restrained, yet this was a really tight band who didn’t put a foot wrong all night.
A short opening set was followed by a quick break and when the choir returned we were thrown straight into their interpretation of the Graceland album. “The Boy in the Bubble” was slower and more measured than the album version and set the tone for the rest of the evening, with one or two singers taking the lead, supported by a varying number of backing singers.
On this track and the following “That Was Your Mother” the keyboards try hard to recreate the Cajun/Zydeco sound and the band begin to throw some shapes up on stage. By the time “All Around The World/Myth of Fingerprints” kicks in, there is finally a bit of movement in the crowd and the jit-jive/Harare sound becomes more apparent.
The upbeat feel continues through “I Know What I Know, Crazy Love and Under African Skies”. Of these, “Crazy Love” is the more interesting, being performed as a male/female duet. The big a capella opening to “Homeless” does slow things down again but this works well musically, utilizing the whole range of voices within the choir and underpinning the song with rhythmic chants behind the lead vocal.
“Gumboots” is performed with some rap and soulful backing vocals and this gets extended a little so we can get introduced to the band, who hail from countries as diverse as Uganda, Congo, Ghana and Kenya.
I’m a bit late in figuring out that the ‘big three’ tracks from the album are being held back for the end of the show, and this hits me just as the band launch into “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”. They handle this pretty well and the rich, deep tenor, alto and baritone voices on the intro sound great.
The guitar kicks in and away we go – two younger girls are dancing in front of the stage and they are quickly joined by two more and then a few more after that until there’s a fair old crowd up dancing. The horns blow this out of the water, as they should, and I’m wondering why it has taken so long to get this kind of reaction from the audience.
“Graceland” is next and again the mood of the original is captured well. People are packing the aisles between the seats and the crowd are belting out the chorus, much to the obvious enjoyment of the band. “You Can Call Me Al” ends the evening on a joyous, rip-roaring high.
This was an interesting and maybe unusual opener for the CQAF, although one with a good pedigree in terms of selling out other venues. If I were to be critical I would say that some of the Graceland material, while performed well, lacked some of the punch and spark of Paul Simon’s original recordings. However, you have to balance this with the fact that the crowd (once they got into it) seemed to love it. A nice way to kick off this year’s festival as well as drawing in a few people who maybe wouldn’t normally be sitting in a big tent listening to live music.