Music of the slaves that stands on the same level as Mozart and Bach
Gospel and Spirituals — a fun service music or deep art that has its hidden meanings and nuances
The spring semester in JVLMA has surprised everyone with something truly special, and not only for the students, but also the professors and the listeners! Local choir singers were given a unique opportunity to study gospel and spirituals music in workshops with someone from the land where that music was born — USA. Somewhere inbetween the workshops and rehearsals, I’ve managed to share a cup of coffee with Derrick Fox, the very same preson who did the teaching. We discussed everything — how our local guys are managing in learning these two completely foreign music genres, what is this music all about, and about Derrick himself. He shared his vision on how the choirs should be taught, how to sing in such a way not to lose the right emotion and to pass this message on to the listener, how the music of the slaves became such a strong part of any charismatic church around the world and how it all is connected to jazz. Our conversation was accompanied by the concert of local jazz department students, so all in all it was an amazing experience.
So, what brings you to Riga?
I’m here working with the choir on African American spirituals and gospel music. So that’s been a very good opportunity to teach them something they may have only heard of, to give them a little more idea of the history behind the music, and it’s been fun introducing the music to students.
You’re working with the classical guys, right?
Yeah. We’ve been trying to figure out how to get them singing with a different sound, how to move a little more, and to understand the history behind some of the pieces. It’s not just: «Let’s snap our fingers and move», it’s actually rooted in history. There’s a purpose for why that music is upbeat, it’s supposed to help overcome a time of trial and tribulation or looking forward to a brighter future. And so when you think of it in that context, you know it’s more than just fun music. It’s a music that tells the story of lives, so it’s been really interesting introducing that aspect of African American music to the people outside the US.
What are your impressions on our local guys?
They’re doing a great job, they really are! They are open to trying new things, trying new sounds. What I’ve learned when I saw and heard the singers in the Baltic states is — most of the singing is what we call «straight toned». Well, while you sing this music you need vibrato. And so it’s been very interesting to watch the students make that transformation. It’s easier for some then it is for the others, because they’re so used to singing the music that’s embedded in your culture, they grow up as young students singing a straight tone, and now I ask them to sing with a vibrato… But they’re working on it, it’s going to be fine. I think some of them are a little scared, but then they just jump in and go for it and I go: «Hey, I told you! Trust me! I know we’ve just met, but trust me!»
What are the challenges when you work with people who are not acquainted with this kind of music?
It’s like when you listen to jazz you think — «oh, this is fun!» But you don’t recognise all of the intricacies that are happening. When someone is improving, you don’t know that in his mind he has to know all the chord changes and he has to know all the notes that fit into that system. Same thing with gospel and African American spirituals. When you listen to it, you think: «Oh, that’s very rhythmic, they’re singing really passionate», but what you don’t know is the story behind the music and what you don’t know is the technique used in that singing. A lot of times in gospel music you would find what we call «belting» — it’s a more pop style, maybe Broadway kind of style. You have to be really careful about how you use that, especially people who come to that music from classical training, because we don’t necessarily teach operatic sopranos how to belt. So it’s really the technique behind the singing, the story behind the music, trying to make sure that people know that. You have to know what you’re singing about, so that you can project that to your audience. And if I’m singing, for example, «Wade in the water», that’s a code for the slaves to go to the river, because there’s gonna be someone to lead you to the underground world, that’s not a happy tune. You have to know what you’re singing about to not make a mockery of the music, or the lives behind the music. That’s the biggest thing, because everybody can pick up a page, read the notes, the music, the lyrics, but you don’t know the meaning behind it. And that’s why it’s just as important that we do what we do in classical music — when we teach singers arias in other languages, we make them do a word for word translation, so that they know what they’re singing about and can project the right emotion. Same thing with this music. Even though it may be in English, a language that most of us can make a way around in, you have to know the meaning behind the words, so you emote and express an appropriate emotion. That’s why this music, gospel and spirituals, is right up there along with Mozart and Bach, it requires the same amount of work.
What’s up with dancing?
It’s kind of the body’s reaction to emotion. It goes way back. I can give you a long history, but the short end of it is the reaction to the music and what we like to say «catching the holy spirit» some people will say «the holy spirit entering your body» and you want to move and dance. Also when you turn to the Christian Bible it’s said: «Praise the Lord with singing and dancing», so this goes way back before us. I think that in charismatic churches it’s a little more acceptable for your response to music to include a physical response as opposed to «I’m going to wait until you’re done performing and then clap». So it’s you being involved in the process of communicating with the musicians, showing your reaction to the music and showing your response to how the music affects you. We say dance, but I think it’s more of a movement, because you have so much energy in you that you can’t sit still. It’s a physical reaction to the emotional stimuli of the music.
So gospel is connected to religion? In fact, inseparable?
Yes! So, the short story is that after slavery was abolished most African Americans move from the southern part of the country to the northern part of the country, and it’s called — the migration. So, they move into these bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit, Kansas city, and that’s where they begin to make their lives where it was more acceptable to be a person of color. So what happened was — up until that time while the majority of people were immersed in spirituals and religious situations, there was a contingency of people who thought: «ok, that’s a representation of this old life and we’re looking forward, we’re looking for joy and for a more positive future». What happened is that we have Thomas Dorsey, he’s known as the father of gospel music, he’s one of the first people who took church music and «pepped it up». He would add percussions to it and maybe other instruments, to make it a little faster and a little more alive so that church services were a little more engaging for the people who were there. The reason why some people may say that the aesthetics of jazz and gospel music are similar is because what happened is that people who would play jazz in clubs on a Saturday night would be the same who played gospel in churches on a Sunday morning. That’s why the rhythm, the sound, the setup you hear is similar. So you see, the evolution of both styles links them and both are related to religion.
So is it true that spirituals in the beginning is slave song?
Yes. Everything goes way back. So that’s why spirituals are meant for choirs, people would sing together in the fields or back in their houses, then what happened was, as it evolved, the Fisk
Jubilee Singers (an acapella ensemble) used to make these concert spirituals, so what we sing now are generally concert spirituals, professional voices, but the original singers were not trained, they had no music lessons, to slaves it was just natural singing, there was no sheet music and the harmonies would come naturally from ear. So that’s kind of the evolution from way back. Spirituals born from slavery and then were moved to concert spirituals, people would start to write them down and sing as academic music. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the people who really made spirituals popular. They used to travel around the country, sing spirituals to raise money to pay for their own education at the black colleges that started to come up. So this is how it goes from early spirituals to concert spirituals, and as African Americans move North, they kind of wanted to move a little bit away from spirituals. Not completely, but this is how gospel music was born — to make religious services a little more positive, more forward thinking. But if you really look into the texts, some of them are heart wrenching. Some of them are escape songs, some are songs of survival, some are about looking forward to new future, but the aesthetics is different from gospel because of the addition of instruments and maybe more intricate chord progressions. The way that gospel music functions in church services is a little different from spirituals as well, gospel music is a lot more flexible, if I want to repeat a line for 5 times because I feel like it, I will, whereas in spirituals you do it as it’s written. Also a thing that’s really different is that most of gospel music is mostly written for soloists and spirituals more for choirs and acapella.
Do you remember the story when Ray Charles took Spirituals and changed Jesus to Baby and became unwelcome in his community for blasphemy?
I don’t remember the details, but I do understand why, because early on in the black church there was a separation between sacred and secular, so for example in terms of «dancing» in the church you find that most of the people who move in gospel music don’t pick your feet up really high, and you don’t do snapping (fingers), because that was associated with secular music, so you clap in the church. There are several African American musicians that got their start in the church and moved into popular music, and some older generations would see popular music as the devils music, so if you go that way… It was hard in some communities, but it was a long time ago, now there is so much crossover, there is Christian rock, Christian rap. But then, if you went that way, you would be going against the church. I can see how that moving into the secular world would conflict with the ideas and the morals of the sacred world. That was way common back then.
Do you have to be Сhristian to sing gospel?
My personal opinion is — no. I don’t have to be Latvian to sing Latvian folk songs. But I can relate to the story in the text, and I take my time to make sure that I can relate that story to the listener. So even if I wasn’t Christian and didn’t believe in the text, as a musician it’s my job to be equipped to interpret the composer’s intent. As I tell my students: «If you sing one tune and it destroys your religious beliefs, then you weren’t strong in them to begin with». If one piece rocks your theology, you were in trouble way before you started singing.
Let’s say there’s a person who wants to start singing gospel but knows nothing about it, where should he start?
Go sing in the gospel choir! And if there’s no gospel choir around (which is impossible in the US), find a singer you like and learn that music. Find the place that will let you experiment with it. You can do it through the internet, you can also start a virtual gospel choir, technology is amazing nowadays! Find what you like, people who like the same as you, do it together.
Let’s say you’re not a musician and you want to start listening to gospel, who’s the best to ease you into it?
I would say go to Youtube and just type in «gospel music», and start listening. It’s like saying «classical music» — there’s so many things under that umbrella! If you go to Chicago, they do it their way, in Detroit another way, and that’s how it is. Early gospel singers are much different from modern ones.
If we get back to the singing aspect — what about the technical side of it? Surely you can’t sing gospel in an operatic voice?
It does require some similar things — you have to have good breath, but beyond that the technique is different. But I think that any musician nowadays has to be versatile, because if you do only one thing, you’ll work very little and will have to find something to do on the side.
When you work with people who previously had no connection to gospel music, what kind of methods you use to get them into the music?
The quickest way is to model it for them. The first piece we took with the choir here I first sang them the phrase and then made them repeat it. I could have told them to look into the score and follow the signs, like — slide here, quiet here, louder there, but it’s happening much faster when I show them how to do it myself. The problem is that in most schools we get too caught up in the score, but you can’t read the emotion I put into music while I sing it.
How did you start working with the choirs?
To be honest — it was a very well-paid job, they asked me to do it and I agreed. I didn’t know how at the beginning, but I learned. And I love it! I love teaching, I love being a conductor, I love learning all the different styles, and what I really enjoyed while being here was learning about Latvian composers.
What do you like doing more — teaching or performing?
I think conducting is performing, and in the school I come from we call ourselves «conductor teachers» as opposed to just conductors or just teachers, I think that in order to be effective in rehearsal you have to do both. You have to be able to teach your singers to do what you want them to do, and you also have to be able to remind them of that in your gestures. I teach the students a lot of things — vocal technique, styles, how to teach other students. In terms of singing — I love singing, but I chose a path of not being just a singer, because I like living comfortably and when you’re a full time singer you’re hustling all the time, trying to find that next gig, next audition, and you have to be willing to travel to the east coast or the west coast frequently, to be able to sing all the time, you could be singing in a church, give private lessons in singing and piano, in a professional choir, and you may sometimes sing opera, and that’s a lot when put together. And I don’t want to do all of that. So I teach at the university, I teach future conductors, I travel around the country and the world working with choirs, and I sing on the side occasionally. I’m fine with singing solo once or twice a year.
What is the most rewarding in being a teacher?
Oh my Gosh… Watching my students grow, how they start at the beginning not knowing a concept and then they grasp that concept and then implement it in their own lessons when they graduate. That’s when I know they’ve learned it and are able to transfer it to different situations. Everyone can sing gospel, but when you are able to take it and teach it to other people means that you have a deeper understanding of the genre and the practices that you can transfer to the others.