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"This is where the London African Gospel Choir was born," says founder and director Crystal Kassi. We've turned off a busy SE London street into a secluded enclave ringed by trees and terraced houses, their wooden, brightly painted verandas overlooking a communal garden with seats half-hidden by shrubs. Exchange the UK foliage for palm trees and we could be in Latin America, the Caribbean or Africa. It's a fitting birthplace for a musical venture rooted in community and creative expression, and that's brought African gospel out of the black churches and into the hearts of audiences worldwide.
"What makes us different is that we all come from different countries in the African Diaspora," she explains. "We have people from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Zaire, Ivory Coast, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Uganda and the Congo... We all come from different churches as well. The common denominator is our faith, although we welcome everybody."
What also sets them apart is their repertoire - a dazzling reflection of the choir's diverse membership and that includes secular songs with a positive message. It's the meaning of the words that counts and Paul Simon's Graceland - acclaimed as "one of the most iconic records in rock and roll history" on its release in 1986 - is a perfect fit with its uplifting lyrics and South African rhythms and melodies.
In the wake of Graceland's 30th anniversary, Camden's Jazz Café commissioned the London African Gospel Choir to perform the album in its entirety for one night only. Tickets sold out within hours and so five more nights were added and they all sold out as well, confirming the enduring appeal of Paul Simon's masterpiece, and also the growing excitement generated by the Choir's string of notable stage and television appearances - some of them shared with stars like Emile Sande, Mumford & Sons, Tom Jones and the Soweto Gospel Choir, with whom they made a triumphant appearance at London's 02 Arena, singing in front of 17,000 people. Annie Lennox had invited them to perform at a number of prestigious events, including the MIT Awards. They'd also worked with actor/director Idris Elba, star of Mandela: Long Road To Freedom who recruited them for an album celebrating South African music, recorded in tribute to Nelson Mandela.
The Choir has featured South African singers and dancers since its inception, and already had songs from there in its repertoire before the Jazz Café came calling. They refer to the Graceland project as "a Godsend." It was an opportunity for their collective talents to shine and they spent weeks learning the songs, perfecting the dance moves and putting a sparkle into their performances that's moved many onlookers to tears. "People have wept for joy after seeing it," says Crystal. "They come out of the shows with Graceland in their ears, their hearts and their dreams."
Born in Paris, she spent part of her childhood in Guadeloupe before returning to her homeland and living between France and Belgium, where she realised her ambition of becoming a professional dancer. Five years later, fluent in most dance styles including jazz, salsa, tap and contemporary, her career was affected by injury. In the aftermath, she travelled the world as a make-up artist and made a new life for herself in London - a life that would change dramatically once a friend had taken her to a church in SE London with a mainly Ugandan congregation. It was there she was saved and first joined the choir. Crystal saw how the music uplifted people's spirits, and especially when accompanied by dancing. Where she differed was in wanting to promote the African gospel experience along with the message, and to share its transformative power with global audiences.
In 2002, she founded the London African Gospel Choir with the intention of spreading the gospel, and creating a platform of excellence for singers and musicians. Early rehearsals took place at St. Catherine's Church in New Cross as they assembled a repertoire of mainly Ugandan, South African and African-American music, and with Crystal singing and dancing, as well as managing the group's affairs. Sixteen years later and she's head of a family that sings, plays and prays together, whose motto is "Lighting up the world with a song." They're joy-bringers, and their numbers vary since the Choir has up to twenty members who perform in a variety of aggregations, from small vocal groups to a large-scale ensemble. At its core is a ten-piece band featuring two keyboard players, two guitarists, bass, drums, percussion and three horn players. Crystal's daughter Yeelen is among the dozen or so singers and they're all expected to learn the lead parts of every song, which means familiarising themselves with several different African languages. Some of the singers and musicians are well known in Africa, or have appeared in West End shows like The Lion King. The group has stars in its midst but it's a sense of belonging and togetherness that binds them, driven by faith and respect for their fellow members.
Crystal and her husband, music agent and promoter Al Hardwicke-Kassi booked the Choir's first shows. They played at church events and small venues in SE London, little imagining that they would one day perform at the Queen's Jubilee celebrations and a G4 Summit; or serenade millions of viewers with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life on UK breakfast television. These days they headline their own tours, which regularly sell out months in advance. They also appear on festival main stages, performing Graceland to growing numbers of fans in the UK and Europe with or without singer Busi Mhlanga, who is a major star in Zimbabwe.
Early next year they embark on their first US tour, playing theatres in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, New Jersey, Norwalk and Westbury. America is home to some of the world's finest gospel talent and the London African Gospel Choir should feel right at home with their joyous singing and dancing, and their unforgettable arrangements of Paul Simon hits such as The Boy In The Bubble, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al.