Amazing grace. Today, gospel glitters. The music of churchgoers now soars to the sound of synthesizers. But the message is always `Precious Lord'
If anyone asks you who I am, just tell 'em I'm the child of God.Skip to next paragraph
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RHONA BENNETT belts out the gospel song with every fiber of her skinny being, while behind her a chorus 70-strong beats out the rhythm and echoes the lines. Rhona paces the stage. She pulls the crowd into her fervor. And she handles the mike like a pro. But she's not a pro. Rhona is 11 years old. She is a member of the Soul Children of Chicago, an interdenominational gospel choir made up of young people from ages 7 to 18, and directed by volunteer Walter Whitman.
The Soul Children were among 20 some groups and stars at the city's third annual Gospel Festival, spreading the ``good news'' via song. For two days - 20 hours in all - gospel music boomed out over Chicago's Loop and lake to rattle heaven's rafters.
And more than 50,000 people of all ages congregated in downtown Grant Park to hear glory shine and the devil take his drubbing.
It was a black audience salted with a few white faces. An audience where fathers, as well as mothers, cradled sleeping children. An audience partial to picnics of chicken and ribs, Popsicles and pop, not pot and booze. And it was a controlled audience. But it moved. Palms smacked, bodies rocked, arms waved, and hips swayed when music and message touched the heartbeat.
GOSPEL music doesn't carry the simplicity of sackcloth anymore. Gone are the days of its confinement to churches, tents, and convention halls, where choirs sang laments and praise to time-worn pianos, while individuals improvised as the spirit of the Lord gripped them. There's still that, sometimes, in some places - the traditional, the nostalgic. But today's contemporary gospel has rolled beyond the pews, onto tapes, platters, and discs. Its strains are heard in concerts and bars, in homes, and on joggers' headphones.
Gospel now glitters. Its sounds are laced with the complexity of instrumentation blared by electric guitars, multiple percussion, synthesizers, the whole works. And it's as stylized as high fashion from a couturier's salon. But even if the sound seems off-the-wall wild, the lyrics aren't lewd. This music carries a gospel or moral message - always.
But black gospel shouldn't be confused with contemporary Christian pop and rock, according to Anthony Heilbut, an authority on black gospel and author of ``The Gospel Sound.''
``The contemporary Christian variety is without stylistic identity, totally amorphous,'' he contends, explaining that it can be anything - punk rock, heavy metal - with religious lyrics added.
``Contemporary black gospel is rooted in traditional black gospel,'' retaining many of its characteristics, including ``moans, slurs, growls, vocal techniques, and traditional repertoire - albeit rearranged for modern listeners,'' he says.
``The cavalier way in which the term `gospel' is used by the [recording] industry is invariably at the expense of black gospel artists.''
Last weekend's festival was basically a black experience, showcasing a pastiche of gospel from ``then'' and ``now.'' And the crowd loved it all.
The afternoon sun was mean, pounding down until sweat mingled with emotional tears. And as the roster of gospel's notables was read by an emcee, one of its royalty was spotted in the audience: Albertina Walker. With the spontaneity of old-time gospel, she was pulled to the stage by applause and pleas. And there she pleased with her rich contralto voice. She's one of Chicago's own; and, like many other gospel singers, Walker got her start early in a local Baptist choir.