In the click-and-play global jukebox created by digital streaming services, there is a real danger that music becomes a commodity, just another moneymaking opportunity in our rampantly consumer-driven culture.
Monday evening’s concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center was a sharp reminder that some types of music are built for other purposes. They will never fit that depressingly materialistic template.
“The Sound of Gospel” was a 90-minute narrative conceived by music director B. Charvez Russell as part of the 138th annual session of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., unfolding this week in Minneapolis. A script written by playwright William Pierce and spoken by Twin Cities actor T. Mychael Rambo anchored a string of musical performances, tracing the history of gospel music from its origins to the present.
Those origins were in Africa — where, as Pierce’s succinct, informative words reminded us, “both life and music began.”
“The Sound of Gospel” opened with the rumble of hand drums played by percussionist Daryl Boudreaux and the costumed choreography of a ceremonial stick dance. When slavery plucked countless Africans away to subjugation in America, those sounds and rhythms followed. They quickly became inseparable from the Christian faith, which sustained many slave communities through adversity.
Slaves were often forced to worship secretly in bush meetings. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” illustrated how songs of hope emerged spontaneously in those desperate settings. Sung by a mass choir drawn from Baptist churches across Minnesota, it thrummed with inner certainties unshaken by the circumstances of daily living.
The call-and-response routines developed to structure and enliven work activities also found their way into gospel music. A stunningly effective version of “Wade in the Water” illustrated this, the keening solo counterpointed by the choir’s hushed refrain in the background. White-gowned dancers were a spectral presence, stalking the boundaries of an imagined pool with healing waters.
The 20th century brought recording technology and larger audiences for gospel music. The song remained essentially the same, however, the music’s pulses still umbilically connected to its point of origin. “Touch the Hem of His Garment” made this clear, with a vibrant barbershop rendition of the old Soul Stirrers standard by an octet of male singers.
Then came the 1960s, civil rights and the tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Pierce’s script was unflinching in confronting the killing. Images of Walter Cronkite flickered on video screens that flanked the stage. Guided by director Jevetta Steele, actors created a stricken image of protesters numbed by the shooting.
The evening ended triumphantly, as the combination of audience, choir and musicians in “Oh Happy Day” literally rocked the floor of the auditorium on its steel-sprung foundations. The only thing to do was rock along happily with it.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.