The gospel community will tomorrow celebrate the achievements of Reverend Bazil Meade, co-founder of the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC). A black-tie event will be held in East London to honour Meade, who has just received an MBE from HRH Prince William at Buckingham Palace for services to music especially the development of British Gospel Music. iSing asked Meade to share his extensive knowledge of the genre.
iSing: How do you define gospel singing?
Bazil Meade: Gospel singing is an inspired way of telling a painful, and celebratory, story. The story of gospel began with the slaves who married the Christian message of their masters with their own African melodies. Those melodies came from the work songs that they used to help them through 24 hours of slogging in the fields. It became more celebratory after emancipation. They began to sing with a different sense of who they are, and with a more intense passion and hope from having overcome a life full of pain and suffering.
iSing: What are the important components of gospel singing?
BM: The gospel singer understands music. They may not necessarily read music, but they’re very musical. I describe gospel as singing without boundaries – we are inspired by the emotion or feeling.
In gospel, the tones we produce are quite amazing and intense. I believe this comes from the faith that underpins the message of hope that people in gospel sing. There is a difference between those who sing and embrace gospel music inspired by their faith, to those who sing it because it’s an art form, like jazz, rock, pop or classical.
The majority of gospel singers have grown up in church listening to their grandparents and parents sing. The young ones hear it, see it and feel it. It’s an academy. It may not have a name, but those of us that have been born into gospel have been attending that academy all our lives.
iSing: How do gospel vocals differ from other vocal styles?
BM: In gospel we don’t think about boundaries. If we feel that the emotion is driving us to sing a note that might sound like we’re on the edge, or the voice is cracking a bit, then so be it. In contrast something like pop uses the more comfortable areas of the voice. I don’t hear a lot of intensity and the range is often limited.
Soul on the other hand is different. Many of those singers have come from a gospel background. They’ve learnt the art of connecting with their soul and delivering from there, not from their head or their mouth.
iSing: Do you have to riff to sing gospel?
BM: It’s an option. I tell my choir you can have an array of riffs in your repertoire but I don’t want to hear them all the time. The audience want to hear the melody; they will remember the tune more readily than the riffs. The riffs are there to add colour. The song must stand up on its own.
iSing: What challenges do people starting out in a gospel choir face?
BM: Singers need to have patience and take time to make sure they’re blending with others and making the vocal adjustments needed to fit with the other voices of the choir.
iSing: What is most common misconception about singing gospel?
BM: That you just open your mouth and sing anything. It’s very disciplined. It’s quite a complicated way of singing and it takes a long time to learn. It doesn’t happen overnight, especially if you’re to sing with an understanding of the style and the roots of gospel.
iSing: Initially you had criticism from your community about setting up a gospel choir with commercial intentions. Is this still the case?
BM: Things have changed so much since those early days. Back then I approached some of the church ministers, out of respect, to explain what I wanted to do. They could not see that the message of hope in Christian faith should be mixing with a rock, pop or R&B band.
I felt differently. I loved the music so much and felt that it was being restricted. I thought it should not just be for the Black church community – that it needed to be out there in the wide world. We are Christian musicians and artists and we should be able to go out there and share the message and music we love with everybody. After all these are the people who need to hear it.
The young ones who joined the choir believed the same thing. They were tired of doing the same thing every Sunday, for the same group of people. They wanted more. Initially the choir members came from Pentecostal churches. Now it’s made up people form about 10 different faiths so the dynamic has changed a bit, but fundamentally we’re all Christians.
iSing: Which gospel choirs do you rate, other than LCGC of course?
BM: I’ve always loved the Richard Smallwood Singers. I love their blend. Richard is a classically trained pianist with a gospel background. He’s incorporated classical and gospel in the arrangements, but the gospel presence is so clear in his piano playing and the sound that’s coming from his singers. I also respect Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, they’re a massive outfit with a beautiful sound.
The London Community Gospel Choir showcase
iSing: Do you have to be a Christian to be a gospel singer?
BM: To sing it with the intensity and honesty that is required, I’d say yes. There are many people who sing it as an art form but, to those who believe, it means something different. You’re telling the story of the cause of your existence: who you are and where your hope and aspirations are seated. Gospel melodies are just amazing. The old spirituals are simple but when I sing them I almost hear my forefathers singing them with the chains on their feet.
iSing: What advice would you give a singer who wants to get started in developing a gospel vocal style?
BM: Listen to the quartets from the early 40s, 50s and 60s. I find today’s music is very over-produced. Listen to people like James Cleveland, Jessy Dixson, the quartet Mighty Clouds of Joy or Aretha Franklin. Aretha is my favourite female singer of all time – her vocalising and riffing come from gospel. Also listen to powerhouse Mahalia Jackson, you’ll get a clear example of how to sing strong melodies with occasional riffs and variations.
Mahalia Jackson sings “Amazing Grace”
If you’ve never sung gospel it would be hard to get into a choir like mine as we’re looking for singers who have a history of singing gospel. But there are feeder choirs around where you can go to learn and develop an understanding of singing gospel. Listen to people and get to some churches where the quality of music is good.
THE LONDON COMMUNITY GOSPEL CHOIR
For more than 30 years the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC) has been taking gospel to new heights. The choir was founded by Bazil Meade, a talented vocalist and instrumentalist.
Meade was born on the Carribean island of Montserrat, and moved to England at the age of nine. He left home in his teens due to family circumstances, and later went on to realise his ambition to bring together the two fundamental aspects of his life: his faith and his music.
The LCGC went on to build up a legion of dedicated fans and nurture the talents of many singers including Mark Beswick, John Fisher and Charlene Hector – a member of this month’s cover band LaSharVu.
The list of artists who have called upon the services of the LCGC is a starry one: Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Brian May, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross and Kylie Minogue, to name but a few.