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Stateside with Rosalea: That O-town sound

Stateside with Rosalea:

That O-town sound

By Rosalea Barker

Saturday I went to an all-day gospel workshop at the First Congregational Church in Oakland. The First Congo bills itself as an "arts-positive, multi-cultural, justice-making, spirit-led" transformative faith community, open to people of all religions.

There are many such church communities in the United States, another well-established movement being the United Unitarian churches. The basic principle is that, whatever name is invoked in prayer, the human need for spiritual guidance is a cohesive, not a divisive, force.

The gospel workshop was run by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and its indefatiguable director, Terrance Kelly, who said it is a way for them to give back to the Bay Area gospel community for the hospitality and support they receive. I'd first seen the OIGC perform at the same church back in February for Martin Luther King Jr Day.

Now, let's get this straight. As I exited the sanctuary after singing in the massed choir performance last night, I didn't pat one of my teachers from OIGC on the shoulder and say "Praise the Lord! Hallelujah Jesus!" - I said: "Beat that!" It was such an exhilirating performance put together in two hours, that it felt like even the pros who sang later wouldn't do better. The massed choir did three songs, and fluffed the beginning of the last one so bad it had to be started over, but the support of the audience was so enthusiastic it felt like we were God's gift to gospel.

I first came to know gospel music in the '60s, when WNTV1 used to play Mahalia Jackson late on Sunday nights and I'd sit up with my mum to watch it. It's only this weekend that I learned gospel is a recent musical form, dating from the time of the urban-to-rural and southern-to- northern migration of the early twentieth century and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Initially, as they were trying to emulate the "respectability" of white churches, black churches were resistant to gospel music but by the 1940s were won over, and the post-war recording industry and television shows like Mahalia Jackson's ensured its place in the pantheon of musical styles. Ironically, it's white gospel music that now dominates the sales charts and, accordingly, the Grammies.

One of the backbones of gospel music is the Gospel Music Workshop of America, founded by James Cleveland in 1968, but based on an earlier organisation founded in 1932 that fostered an elaborate apprenticeship and networking system for performers across the United States. Several of the people teaching in Saturday's workshop were products of the GMWA - for example, Dr. Patrick Bradley, who taught the beginning music theory and songwriting classes I took.

The songwriting class was astonishing. First, there's Bradley's style as a teacher. He's funny but firm, as when we didn't follow his directing when we were singing our song: "Watch the black hand!" He creates a sense of group responsibility and support by having you turn to your neighbour and say things like: "We're in this together" and "Turn to your neighbour and say: I love you and you can't do nothin' about it."

Incredibly, in an hour and 15 minutes he not only built on two songs already written by class members, but he drew a song out of the air from us all. >From the six different themes we initially called out, we quickly chose one: "All those in favour of peace put your hands up." Then we wrote and refined some lines for the verse and he improvised a tune on the piano and had an accomplished alto singer develop a lead, around which he built the class's part as a choir.

The 6-page class handout in my hand vibrated with the power of that soloist's voice as she sang the last line of our song, which is copyright free and can have its spiritual component adapted to suit your own beliefs:

What a blessing is peace when it rests in our hearts

What a blessing is peace when it fills our lives

It shines in the world

Lord, share your peace with us all.

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