Monday, June 29, 2009

823. Gospel music, part 2

(Continued from here.)

My class has stayed in touch, mostly because of the miracle of Facebook, and a few months ago someone got the idea of renting the old building up in Harlem and putting on a reunion concert of the gospel choir, who had their very own solo on the FAME soundtrack. An old friend emailed--come sing with us! But I was an art student, I answered; I'd feel like an interloper. You're still one of us, she wrote back. I waffled until the very last rehearsal, as did others. Maybe we all feared an anticlimactic coda to those great old memories. For me, it was simply about being chicken; I'd never before sung in a gospel choir.

But the rehearsal--conducted by the guy in our class who wrote that solo on the soundtrack when just a teenager--was electrifying, and felt not all that different from the music I sing at my synagogue. It sounded different, of course, and was much, much louder, at a volume geared to wake up anyone who might be on the fence about this God business, but that was the least of it. As at my services, we swayed back and forth, clapped, and were thrilled to proclaim praises in the company of people we didn't know very well, but loved just the same. I was astonished by the speed with which everyone (except me) picked up the music. Nothing was written down. The conductor sang a line, complete with complex rhythm and tricky tonal leaps; we repeated it once or twice; then we combined with the other parts and made glorious harmony. Our skills ranged from professional musicians to those who hadn't sung at all in a decade or two--but just about everyone (except me) had been immersed in this particular lexicon all their lives.

I muddled through the rehearsal, exhilarated to discover a whole new language of sound. At the concert I hid in the back row, which came in handy when we performed two completely unfamiliar songs--but I didn't panic, followed the conductor's carefully mouthed words, swayed when everyone else did, and had a blast. The concert started an hour late ("gospel time," someone said, which seems to be just like "Jewish time") and lasted until 1AM, when stage and audience joined in on, you guessed it, the theme song from FAME. It was corny and perfect. For one night we returned to a world that didn't really exist all those years ago, either, one in which friendships extending beyond lines of color, lifestyle, income, etc. were the rule rather than the exception. The rest of society is a little closer to where were were back then, but still has a lot to learn.

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