During the holidays, we turn on the radio and are greeted with songs celebrating the season. And if we are lucky, some of the songs are gospel tunes; uplifting, full in sound, a rhythmic reminder of the message behind the Christmas holiday.
Gospel music is joyous, the kind of music that won’t allow anyone to remain still.
Gospel music emerged during the time of American slavery, when Africans were introduced to Christianity. Slaves took traditional hymns and merged them with the call and response singing style prevalent in West African culture.
I spent 10 years studying music in Guinea, West Africa. The predominant style, whether it was with singing or percussion, was that of a lead musician playing a melody, which was answered in a response by the remaining musicians. The music was always celebrated with exuberance and animation, and often elicited an uninhibited desire to get up and dance.
Post-slavery, gospel became rooted in the traditions of the African-American church. It is sung from the soul and from the heart. African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries adapted hymns from the European tradition, but they found the confines of austere rhythm too restrictive. Singers stretched out the timing and added elements of improvisation and syncopation.
Music has always had the power to lift one out of darkness and provide a comforting respite for the spirit. Gospel music, as sung by African slaves, emerged at a horrific time in the history of our country. The practice of slavery presented one of the most appalling examples of man’s inhumanity to man. The joy experienced while singing gospel provided a sojourn into the world of music where exultation reigned, and the horrors and dehumanization of slavery faded into the distance. Singing gospel music must have felt like one had entered into the Kingdom of Heaven, an escape from the everyday drudgery and cruelty that slavery offered, a moment of happiness and pure elation.
The Rogue Valley Chorale, a group of 100 singers located in Medford, is rehearsing gospel music for a Dec. 3-4 holiday concert at the Craterian Theater. (For more information, see craterian.org.)
I'm a member of the chorale, and the singing evokes the same joyous response I felt while studying music in West Africa. Last night we rehearsed for the first time with our guest soloists Bishop Mayfield and Britney Simpson. I heard the call-and-response musical style I experienced in West Africa, and was transported back to my days playing drums and singing under the baobab tree in my teacher’s garden.
As the chorale singers swayed side to side, clapped hands, and felt the power of 100 voices joining together, I could almost smell rice cooking over open fires infused with a salty ocean breeze.
As I rehearse the music for our holiday concert, I feel a connection to a musical style that has existed in America for decades, one that is rooted in a cultural tradition that is centuries old. The joy of singing transports me to a place where the jagged edges of troubled times cease to exist and there is nothing but the music.
— Rogue Valley Chorale member Laura Rich lives in Rogue River.