Graceland is, for me, quite simply one of the best albums ever made. I’ve never had the time nor the talent to study the music of Paul Simon’s classic back to front, however, so I’m somewhat in awe of a group of musicians who would use their collective talents to adapt it into a beautiful interpretation of the original. Enter the London African Gospel Choir, who have worked with everyone from Tom Jones to Idris Alba in their storied journey so far.
Crystal Kassi, the choir’s founder, told me all about their exploration…
Could you tell me a little about how this project came to be?
Towards the end of 2016, the Columbo Group, who run the Jazz Café, approached us and asked us to cover the album. They had asked us to do cover other artists such as Kanye West, which wouldn’t have been a good fit, but Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir. It was only supposed to be one show, but it sold out within a day, so we ended up doing 6 shows over 2 weeks in the Jazz Café, Camden and XOYO.
Does it link in with previous projects the choir have done?
Not really, we’ve covered a few songs here and there when they were requested, for corporate events. For example, when singing alongside the Soweto Gospel Choir at the O2 Arena. Graceland was actually quite a challenging project for us, but we’ve used it to push ourselves, and it’s shown us how much we are capable of.
Do you have a personal affinity with ‘Graceland’?
I always loved the album, especially the richness and colour of South African music.
Is there a specific person assigned to play Paul Simon in the performance, or is it a shared role? What about the guest vocalists on the album?
No, we have 8 incredible singers who share the lead vocals throughout the show. Some songs, like Crazy Love are sung as duets. We include Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song, which was performed in Paul Simon’s 1987 African Graceland Concert.
Obviously, there are some quite substantial South African links on Graceland, which turned out to come at a great time for him. Musically, do the influences stand out to those more familiar with the South African music scene?
Yes, especially amongst the musicians, who are really invested in their art, so would look into the styles of Paul Simon’s band. However, they are all also heavily influenced by the music from their own specific countries, so the audience will get the South African foundation laid by the original composition, with hints of Congolese music, high-life, and East African
I understand this will the group’s first Dublin appearance. How do you approach coming into a different environment like this?
We’re very excited. Ireland has such a musical richness in its culture that we are looking forward to experience and interact with during our show. I don’t think we change our approach, everyone who comes to see us is special to us so we are always rehearsing to make sure any audience we perform to has the most joyous time we can provide.
You’ve worked with some huge names over the last few years. How are those experiences, working with say Tom Jones or Idris Elba?
Intimidating at first, but we realise they are really friendly, approachable and professional. We try to learn as much as we can from those experiences and opportunities.
Can you tell me a little about the background of those in the choir, and how people come to join?
There are a lot of people in the choir, so it would be difficult to talk about everyone. We have established musicians, people who have their own groups, and others who sing in their churches. We have members from all over Africa and the Caribbean, who live in different parts of the country, and go to different churches, but we’re unified by our belief in God and
our love of people and music.
When you’re not playing Graceland, what does your more regular setlist sound like?
It varies depending on the event we are doing. It comprises of music from all across Africa, we have members from throughout the diaspora and that is represented in the music we perform. You can get a taste from our first CD, called Mercy, which is being released on the 26th August. Just in time for our arrival in Ireland.
As you might be aware, Graceland faced some criticism at the time of its release for breaking boycotts relating to apartheid in South Africa. Fortunately, apartheid’s a thing of the past now. Is it possible to separate that kind of cultural context from the release itself, now a really beloved album?
It’s possible to, but it’s also important not to. Paul Simon did an extremely brave thing going against the boycott. He gave a platform to black South African musicians who otherwise would have been even more victimised by apartheid, despite the aim of the boycott, which was to end the regime.
There are also political references in some of the lyrics, such as The Boy in the Bubble, so if you stop to listen, you are forced to consider. I think it’s also part of the reason it’s such a loved album. We definitely embrace that part of history as some of our members lived through those times.
What’s your favourite track from the album to sing?
Gumboots, I love the arrangement of the song. It’s a song about love and it’s complexities.
What future plans to the choir have in terms of performances or different music?
At the moment, we are focused on the upcoming tour and hopefully pushing our reach globally. We love the fact that while we are touring Graceland, the show is formatted so that we can also perform LAGC material.
The London African Gospel Choir play the National Concert Hall, Dublin on August 27.