London African Gospel Choir: “Graceland just seemed perfect for the sounds and message of the choir”

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
tones too.