Review: London African Gospel Choir perform Paul Simon’s “Graceland” @ Plug Sheffield

On Saturday 11th November The London African Gospel Choir graced Plug, one of Sheffield’s most established venues that has hosted the likes of The Arctic Monkeys (no surprises!), Patti Smith and Lily Allen since it opened its doors over a decade ago. For any Sheffield student, past or present, this will be a venue close to their heart, forever linked with memories of midweek club nights and packed dance floors. Meaning the chance to engage in a totally contrasting musical experience is a forever inviting prospect.

The LAGC were here to perform Paul Simon’s Graceland, a work which is the product of Simon’s travels across South Africa in the early 80s. He was completely overcome with the infectious rhythms and headed to Johannesburg to record what would become his most commercially successful album ever. The show stays true to the original recording by blending pop, rock, mbaqanga and zydeco together to create a truly energising live arrangement. The choir is made up of 17 dancers and musicians from every part of Africa, all of whom are thoroughly uplifted by the unique musical experience they create for both themselves and their audience. They have collaborated with artists including Mumford and Sons and Emeli Sandé, in addition to headlining the O2 Arena following sell-out shows in London.

On stage, the London African Gospel Choir consists of 11 male and female singers in traditional African dashiki dress. Each take turns on lead vocals and are backed by a trombone (Grace Morgan), trumpet (Ivan Sempagama), bassist (Desmond Ackam), keyboard players (Charles Ngobi, Dennis), drummers (Wesley Muthee, Koko Kayinda)and guitarists (Burkinda-Faso Kasongo, Joseph Nsubuga). The female singers coordinate in matching African shaped earrings and every performer wears a smile from ear to ear.

The first half of the show is dedicated traditional songs that have been arranged especially for the choir. Testing solos offer the musicians a chance to showcase their breathtaking vocal talentat times leaving the audience speechless as the final note settles. One of the most memorable moments is during the third song where Audrey Heron gives an emotionally charged, flawless gospel recital of “Mercy”, which rises and falls with such grace the entire audience is locked in awe.

The second half begins with a loud round of applause as the first bars of Boy in the Bubblereverberate on stage and a sense of excitement ripples through the crowd. Under African Skies is performed by soulful Busi, who pours a thousand percent passion into the bouncing reggae arrangement supported by soulful backing harmonies. “Sometimes I get like this on stage”, Busi explains as she wipes the sweat from her brow and re-arranges her hair decoration following a spontaneous freestyle dance, which just feels like a natural extension of the musical celebration happening before your eyes. The audience cheer and howl back at her.

Richly harmonious renditions of That Was Your Mother and I Know What I Know are individually tailored to offer each lead singer a chance to shine. You can really feel the community energy within the group as fellow choir members grin in support when their co-singer steps back to finish a song. Impressive guitar work on Crazy Love introduces a rock element to traditional African rhythms, and the growling hard rock tones of trumpet player and bass singer Grace Morgan delight the audience by offering a dramatic spin on Graceland. Male choir members then perform a “gumboot” dance off, much to everyone’s delight.

No singer indulges in a even moment of stillness throughout the gig – and this boundless energy is infectious. But the real showman of the night is lead singer Derrick Kiteke. His powerful voice, audience engagement and unfaltering energy carry the choir as he looks back to share wide smiles with them throughout.

The encore You Can Call Me Al has the venue in full swing as the smash driven synth generates huge enthusiasm for Kiteke’s sing-back requests, which he compliments with kind sincerity.

The combination of a rich backing band and a group of incredibly charismatic, all smiling, all dancing performers has a therapeutic effect on the crowd who bounce along to the show, beer in hand, like not a soul in the world is watching; sharing wild grins with strangers and stamping as hard as their feet will let them.

If you get a chance to catch The London African Gospel Choir, do not turn it down. Find out more here.