Gospel music & un-birthday presents

This past winter, I decided on a whim to go to a Gospel music concert in a pretty little chapel in Old Montreal; the reviews of the choir were good – it had a few awards listed – its credentials seemed legit.

I was a little concerned when I noticed that the audience was comprised exclusively of white folk. Not a single member of any visible minority present; had I accidentally stumbled upon the “Broadening Horizons of White People” night of the year?

The answer to that rhetorical question is: yes, yes I had. Not only was the choir equally pale-skinned, they were primarily francophone. I did not expect to hear “Jesus was a Sparrow” sung with the distinctive Québecois accent. (Linking that clip so close to the mention of a church makes me giggle.)

This award-winning choir reminded me of my youthful participation in my Catholic church’s choir. We were not very talented, and our taste in music veered towards to sappy country hymns. Occasionally we’d spice it up with a Gospel hymn. After service, I would ask my mom “How’d we do? It was cool, no? So much more lively than usual!” and my mom would always give me a dry look that meant “Keep dreaming, child. B+ for effort.”

Un-birthday presents

One day at work, my mom called me, and breathlessly asked me to cancel any existing plans that night – she had a surprise for me. We were going on a girls’ night downtown; I was to meet her at Place des Arts.  I was intrigued: this was a clear interruption of our usual routine, of visiting my parents at their home on the weekend. My mom’s health was wretched, trips downtown were usually a painful and exhausting venture that she tried to avoid whenever possible. So I was very curious to see what could justify such an unusual impulse on her end.

When I met her at the concert hall, she gleefully wished me Happy Un-birthday and gave me a handwritten card with the following quote;

“I mean, what is an un-birthday present?”

“A present given when it isn’t your birthday, of course.”

Alice considered a little. “I like birthday presents best,” she said at last.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” cried Humpty Dumpty. “How many days are there in a year?”

“Three hundred and sixty-five,” said Alice.

“And how many birthdays have you?”

“One.”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

It is only once we took our seats in the concert hall, that I finally discovered what we were about to watch: the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, from NYC, making a rare tour to Montreal. My mother could barely contain her excitement. This dance company had been the first Black, and then multi-racial, ballet and contemporary dance company in the USA. The programme sounded dark and pompously ambitious: “Revelations tells the story of African-American faith and tenacity from slavery to freedom through a suite of dances set to spirituals and blues music.

Gospel music done right

The curtain lifted, the lights dimmed, and gospel music filled the hall. Little or no props; simple cotton shifts that echoed clothing from slavery times; barefoot dancers. The combination of music and dancing was so powerful, it pushed the air out of the room, replacing it instead with joy, deep and contagious, emanating from every dancer on stage.

I rediscovered my faith in God that night.

Watching them dance, I felt that this is what giving glory to God should always be like;  it should be multifaceted, physical and uninhibited. If God made us in His image, surely this is what we should be doing – combining every skill-set at our disposal for His purpose. One of my favorite segments of the night is the rendition of Wade in the Water, a song my mother used to sing to me as a lullaby. In this version, it is raw and sexy, among other things – a facet to the hymn that is highlighted through the choreography. Thus, through adding the dance to the music, the experience is more complete : we are sexy creatures, us humans, and to deny that whilst giving praise is to deny part of what He has created. A revelation indeed, one I would have never experienced had I not seen this dance company.

When they finished their dancing at long last, there were several moments of silence in the hall, as though everyone was too stunned to react. Then wave upon wave of thunderous applause exploded in the room. As the lights came on in the room, I took a curious look around me. The audience was a mix of every possible demographic in Montreal, united in its experienced joy. A wonderful sight, given that the very history of this dance company and choreography is based on segregation and division.

Best un-birthday present ever.

P.S. I’ve turned into a Gospel music snob: I’ve yet to hear anything as wonderful or transformative as the music of that night.

P.P.S. I submit that the existence of this very successful dance company is proof that ballet is most definitely da realest.

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