A few months ago, at the invitation of friends, I found myself at a tiny Baptist community church in The Bronx, New York, early on a Sunday morning. The sincere spirituality of the music that these parishioners created and shared so generously left in me a feeling that I would later try to articulate in many fancy ways, and which turned out, in the end, to be - simply - happiness. So, my natural question before tonight, tinged with apprehension, was: when you take gospel out of the context of small-scale communal worship, and export it to a theatre, does it change? Can it still make people happy?Well, yes to both. These guys are clearly performers; according to their website, they have won numerous awards and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. They take their brand and showcase their abilities to the world, but more, I would say, in an ambassadorial, than a commercial, way. Their activities also support many charitable works, including their own foundation for AIDS orphans. I take the view that music – no matter where it is transported to and in what guise – nourishes the soul, and I don’t care if it’s in a theatre in Oxford because I can’t imagine I will be going to South Africa, or even back to the Bronx, any time soon, and my soul is quite hungry right now.
Demonstrating the choir’s versatility, their diverse repertoire included traditional African spiritual songs, American spirituals, renditions of soft rock classics like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, more modern gospel like 'This Little Light of Mine', and at least one fab mash-up. It made sense to include songs in English, because understandable lyrics that resonate and timeless melodies are a powerfully emotive combination, particularly in versions of songs like Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ and Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ (both, tonight, led by women).It almost goes without saying that they are all great singers. An unexpected bonus, however, was the visual performance. The women’s dresses were as silky as their voices, the men had some serious dance moves, and they all swayed to a rhythm so seductive that not a single person was left in their seat by the end of the night. All of this belied the actual simplicity of the stage: a keyboard player and two drummers, plus the choir – that was all.
The distinct Christian overtones obviously may not be for everyone, but, hey, it’s a gospel choir, that’s what gospel choirs do, and I think that, with an open mind, many faiths, and the non-religious, could allow themselves to be enveloped in the warm spiritual embrace of the melodies without too much angst. As one of the choir said to the audience, ‘we sing in praise of you, too.’Music that has survived and evolved through colonialism and apartheid - music that travels in this way - cannot help but continue to evolve, and to blend with other genres. My personal wish is that the choir will continue to stock their repertoire with plenty of traditional African and American spirituals, form further interesting collaborations - hopefully away from cheesy pop – and also spend time giving as much hope and joy to communities in Soweto as they did to folks in Oxford tonight.
The choir will perform in Birmingham and Milton Keynes later on this month – don’t miss them! For more information about their schedule visit their website.