Graceland, London African Gospel Choir, review: De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, October 5

London African Gospel Choir
London African Gospel Choir

London African Gospel Choir treated Bexhill to a mesmerising performance of original songs augmented with Paul Simon’s Graceland album, all choreographed to great effect at De La Warr Pavilion on Saturday night.

With an irresistible charm, tour manager Al Kassi was in playful mood as master of ceremonies and set the tone for the evening, explaining that the first set consisted of the choir’s own material with Paul Simon’s seminal album, Graceland, to be performed after the interval.

The musicians were first on and struck up the opening song to get the audience’s feet tapping, closely followed by the choir in smart, colourful African tunics and positioned in two rows – such is the size of this ensemble. While you could sense the crowd’s desire to hear the familiar songs, they were soon converted (no pun intended) and the warm applause was encouraging with Derrick Kitebe adding some humour and putting the audience at ease.

Next up was Hakuna Mungu, a fast tempo traditional African song with a catchy hook and staccato beats executed superbly by the band where the interplay between vocal and music is felt, not seen. The adage ‘the sum being greater than its parts’ is perfectly apt. At this point, it was time for Derrick to test the audience’s willingness being encouraged to ‘ha!’ after the callout of ‘Hakuna Mungu’. They needed some cajoling from the charismatic lead vocalist, but they soon obliged and the choir seemed to grow from it.

The other stand-out track for me was I Need Your Love, an emotional and easy-on-the-ear song with majestic lead vocals from Audrey Heron and Morgan Grace. At this point I tried to appreciate how it must be for the choir to be fully invested in their music. It seemed to lift them spiritually as well as musically. The choir took a break to warm applause and Al got a second chance to plug the CD that’s for sale by LAGC.

The air of expectation ensured that the crowd were back to their seats punctually and the group opened with Boy In The Bubble. The sound was rich and had the hum of the African rhythm. At this point, I had a feeling of deja-vu and it was valid as the last time I heard this music performed live was 30 years ago. It was the last night of Paul Simon’s Graceland tour at Estadio de Rosaledo in Malaga, Spain, and I travelled there on my own to experience it. While that was then and this is now, there is something about the conflation of African township music and Paul Simon’s songbook, which is so powerful that you sense this audience felt it too.

The sequence of songs was rearranged and next up was the feel good All Around The World, which saw our lead vocalist move closer to the front rows. The energy was flowing at this point and we then heard a moving version of Homeless. The eery chant of “strong winds destroy their homes, many dead tonight, it won’t be you” juxtaposed the luxury of a night out in rural Sussex with the stark poverty and hardship of Africa. Such were the quality of songs and performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland, that there was comfort in knowing that each one would be enjoyable. We heard a wonderful arrangement of Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes and Derrick Kitebe introduced us to the full ensemble with all 17 members!

As we neared the end, it became inevitable that the choir would finish with You Can Call Me Al and there was a real gift back to Derrick and his colleagues as the ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ sang their respective lines of the chorus to provide a great ending to a special evening in Bexhill.

London African Gospel Choir’s first studio CD is available to buy now. Click here to find out more about the group.

The singers also perform at Brighton Dome next month. Visit brightondome.org to buy tickets.

Stuart Large is a freelance writer and reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @boyaboutsound.

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