All my life, I’ve wanted to sing in a gospel choir. And at the ripe age of 43 years and 135 days, just this last Sunday I realised that dream.
You may wonder why I’ve always wanted to sing hallelujah with a bunch of loud, swaying, robe-wearing singers. Well, I love singing, I love rhythm, I’m quite loud, and I love Jesus, so it kind of makes sense really. I’ve had a love of all things African for many years, and although they don’t sing gospel in the parts of Africa I know, African exuberance lies at the heart of this soulful music. Also, I spent a few too many years learning and performing classical, stand-very-still-while-you-sing-and-do-exactly-as-its-written-on-the-paper music. Gospel music throws that in air with a leap of joy.
Much to my chagrin, wherever I’ve lived around the world, I’ve never lived where a gospel choir existed (or at least, one that a white, middle-class woman could join). Neither Nottingham (where I was at university), Uganda, Norwich, nor St Albans had a choir. I considered going to one in London once, but I couldn’t commit with my work travel schedule at the time.
But then 3 months ago, my eyes fell upon a tiny little article in our local paper that Bazil Meade, director of the world-renowned London Community Gospel Choir and was setting up an academy here in St Albans with a view to holding its first concert in March. You what?!! I couldn’t believe it. The editor omitted to include contact details, but thanks to that modern search-all, Google, I found the full article and sent an enquiring email.
A few weeks later, on 10 January, I found myself in a church hall with a bunch of people I’d never met who were as buzzy about the chance to sing gospel as me – phew, no stuffy English reserve here then, despite the preponderance of white faces and greying hairs. And hang on, is that Annie Brewster, the wonderful Mayor of St Albans, singing with the sopranos with whom I’d just spent a crazy day raising money for Sport Relief, me in a pink hippo outfit and her in a red onesie? Wonderful, I thought, this was guaranteed to be as unstuffy as she is stylish and fun….. And there behind the piano, letting his fingers find their freedom on the keys, was the Bazil Meade who, with a commanding yet gentle presence, set about to teach us the essence of gospel.
Joy. Freedom. Unity. Undergirthed with incredible control, skill and blend. Blend. That key word. “No one voice is to stand out from the crowd,” he said, “no harmonising and going off on your own. Listen, listen to each other and blend”. I realised I had to say goodbye to the improvisation I’d been doing with my singing group the Lady Blah Blah’s for the past 5 years, unless doing a solo. Say goodbye to any sheet music or written words that had been my guide for most of my musical life (eek). Say hello to my ears, fix all eyes on the conductor who will work you like putty in his hand, and work as a team. What a fantastic life lesson.
So, fast forward if you will to last Sunday night, the evening of St Albans’ first Gospel Festival. The night where we were to perform just 4 songs, before the incredible London Community Gospel Choir would take their turn and blow all our socks off in the second half. Gulp.
Ok, so we had only 8 rehearsals to go from a bunch of mixed ability, mixed race, mixed age (the oldest being 90 year old Mildred originally from St Kitts, Caribbean), mixed everything people who had never sung Gospel together, to put on a performance at the main concert hall in town. Hmm. Tall order? Not for Bazil, clearly.
I have to say, the result was really rather good. I’m not blowing my own trumpet (this is Gospel, right, it was a team effort!) but I was seriously impressed at how good we sounded, considering how few rehearsals we’d had only 4 people to a mic. I mean, we even had my normally unexpressive husband actually tapping his feet (so I was told). Our soloists were sublime, who themselves had never done this before either. Bazil, in his true teacher’s style, had asked his son Leonn, the gorgeous, young, I’m-a-bit-too-cool-for-St-Albans drummer for LCGC, to conduct us. And he was superb. Despite losing him for the first 3 mins of the show which was an interesting start (poor guy was probably having a much needed ‘comfort’ break!), he showed us what a good conductor can do with a group of singers. Putty in his hand.
Here’s a YouTube clip of Lord, Help me to Hold Out, with Sam Taylor doing the solo (who I’m convinced is related to the stunning Alison Moyet….;-))
What was really interesting was how un-nervous I was, and many others said the same who’d rarely set foot on a big stage. You see, this wasn’t just about us; the focus of Gospel is God and his goodness, so people were listening not for every perfect note, but for the vibe, the spirit, the joy. Anyway, I digress….
After the interval, the pros came on. Oh my. If I’d had a wig, it would have been 5 feet in the air within 6 bars of their opening song! They were incredible. Whoopi Goldberg, move over (if you’ve seen the film Sister Act you’ll know what I’m talking about). The sheer power, exuberance and slickness of their performance was astounding, yet you knew that it wasn’t all tightly rehearsed and managed; improvisation in the way the whole thing was delivered, performed and laughter was ever present. I spotted 2 white faces (“There’s hope for us then, I quipped to my friend”) and a whole range of sizes of waistline (so there’s still hope for us then). Their faith was clearly genuine; fame and power hadn’t corrupted. But then, from my small knowledge of Bazil, I wasn’t surprised, as this was clearly the key part and point of Gospel that he held onto.
And then came THE best part of the night, and indeed, of my year. No hang on, the last 5 years! We came on and joined the London Community Gospel Choir to sing the last song, Oh Happy Day! Oh wow, oh wow. I found myself standing back up on the same part of the podium as I had just done an hour earlier, but this time next to the gorgeous, tall, Whitney Houston-like, funky, deep voiced girl who’d just done a solo. I was suddenly 6 years old and giggled and said something like “Am I going to share a mic with you?”! She giggled back and fluttered her false eyelashes (a small wind blew around the auditorium). All credibility and grown-upness on my part shot out the window in that moment….
The drummer struck up (who I later realised was no longer Leonn but a 12 year old virtuoso boy) and I found myself feeling like I was physically being carried a few inches off the floor by the sheer volume of the sound and rhythm of the music. I beamed with sheer joy and thought “This is it, I’m in heaven; I just couldn’t be having more fun!”
It was like Jim’ll Fix it, but this time, it was Bazil who’d fixed it.
So, if you feel like Lady Time is ambling along a wee bit too slowly, and those things you’ve always wanted to do have stubbornly clung to the corners of life’s room, have hope. One or two of them may just wheel themselves out in front of you and say “Its time!”
I’m linking this post up with the newly launched ‘Loud and Proud’ linky hosted by Suzanne at 3childrenandit. Proud to be part of the first link up!