SONGS OF PRAISE GOSPEL STYLE !

Lanzarote Gospel Choir, Teatro Tias, January 2020     review

My wife and I had spent the previous hour in a wonderful new restaurant Arreyate un Millo, just around the corner from Teatro Tias, extolling the virtues, to our friends Margaret and Iain, of The Lanzarote Gospel Choir we were about to see. That moment had now arrived and we were all buzzing with anticipation from our front row seats in the theatre when, led by their musical director, Ezequiel Barrios, twelve female ´disciples,´ all wearing angelic white tops and jeans, took to the stage.

leading the choir

His seat and keyboard were to the left of the line and from the moment he hit the opening note, with the choir poised to soar as one voice, we knew were in for a real treat. Instead, Ezequiel stopped playing, and told his ´disciples´ to exit the stage and he would call them back when he had sorted out a few things. He instructed them in Spanish, and although I could tell the gist of it from his tone I had no precise idea of what he was saying. There may have been a hint of chastisement in his voice but there was a twinkle in his eyes that belied that, and when the audience (all Spanish, bar a handful) began roaring with laughter, it was obvious that there was some element of teasing here. In what was a great piece of showbiz schtick he reminded us of our obligations to join in with the choir with gusto and to follow his directions for ‘call and response’ sections. He told us too, and in no uncertain terms, that the ladies deserved a much more rapturous applause than that with which we had greeted them. The next hour proved him absolutely right.

What he had being doing, actually, was exercising perfect stage management. In the couple of seconds as he had brought his choir on stage the musical conductor had assessed the size and mood of the audience and had noted a slight end-of-the-week lack of energy we needed to bring to the frenzy a concert by this enthusiastic choir. He took ownership of the arena, united the crowd into one pulse and won our hearts by showing his care for his choir.

He now brought the disciples back to the stage, and the response from the audience, even as the choir was settling into their line-up, was massive.

Ezequiel paused whilst the audience applauded and only at the exact moment that applause might have started to fade did he then start the performance of Freedom all over again. There was then an amazing outburst of joyous energy from the choir that rendered the audience unable to resist. Soon we were all clapping along, swaying, waving our arms and hollering and whooping, and harmonies were ringing out not only from the choir, but also between different sections of the audience. Because he had spent a few minutes alone with the audience preaching about the clapping techniques and rhythm we might like to employ, Ezequiel also suddenly found himself with an excellent percussive line up of, by now about 140 people, with an ability to add a syncopation to the music, (which is a euphemism disguising the fact that we often all seemed to clap at different beats).

I have a problem when listening to Spanish artists talk. They speak Spanish ! And not only that, but they speak it very quickly. So I can’t always be sure of what I’ve heard but at the end of that first number I thought Ezequiel said ´well done´ to us all, and pointed particularly to we four English people in the front row. He seemed to focus on Iain, and identify our friend´s constant thirst for knowledge and understanding, and for one glorious moment it seemed he might call Iain up on stage to join the choir, but sadly that was one miracle that didn´t happen.

The second song was obviously carefully selected to show a slightly more refined tone of the choir and their delivery of Open The Eyes of My Heart was perfectly attuned to the mood of this prayer-like ballad.

This included two particular lyrical refrains that were delivered with melodious effect, firstly by a solo member singing ´open the eyes of my heart´ and the choir and, subsequently the audience, singing ´the storm is passing over´ to tumultuous effect, skilfully conducted by Ezequiel.

Time and again throughout these two opening pieces, the musical director had created false endings, stopped and started again, each time cajoling more from his singers.

He aided them with his own interventions, and his gruffer vocals perfectly complemented their own higher register. His keyboard work, too, moved from the thumping to the tinkling and throughout this concert there was constant rise and fade from all concerned.

His direction of the classic gospel-soul song Stand By Me brought a fantastic performance from the choir. Written by the rock and roll duo, Leiber and Stoller, with soul singer Ben E King, who then released it as a single in 1961, this was lent a different lease of life by Lanzarote Gospel Choir. As with most of the performances tonight, a different choir member would take a few solo lines in what was always essentially an ensemble delivery.

Anne Rees, second left

Between songs Ezequiel was constantly teasing his twelve disciples, but the smile in his eyes and their quite apparent adoration of him reduced all that to mere mutual affection. His relationship with his audience was very similar. He told us off for not applauding a solo singer, sighed at our sensed desire to know more about the choir and at one time threw his hands up in despair when the word hallelujah seemed to be a few syllables more than most of us were able to sing. Nevertheless he told us of the nationalities in the choir, and I thought I deduced that one of them was from Argentina (though I have since been told by a lady who should be my editor, that the lady is concerned is German) and one was English. I know for certain that she is English because, much to Anne´s embarrassment, he singled her out for our special attention from the front row.

Not once, though, did he lose the pace of the evening or the patience of the audience and he had us eating out of his hands all the way through the show.

The hallelujah in question here was Leonard Cohen´s famously ´broken´ hallelujah and it was delivered in a beautifully wrapped package with Let It Be, in perfect Beatle-esque sincerity, Amen and a gospel number I had never previously heard called Help Me To Hold Out. 

Gospel music has long been a genre of Christian music.  Nevertheless the writing and performance style of its songs and in fact even the significance and perhaps, too, the definition of Gospel music is determined by its social and cultural context. Composed and performed for many religious or ceremonial purposes as well as purely for aesthetic pleasure, Gospel music has also become entertainment product aimed at a large niche marketplace. Tonight´s performance was scoring on all points, and the songs from Cohen, Leiber and Stoller and Lennon and McCartney shared the same sentiments as the more predominantly Christian lyrics we heard in other songs on the ´track-list´.

Authentic gospel music has its roots in black oral traditions and began to really emerge in the seventeenth century. Its hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in call and response sessions with church congregations. The hand clapping and foot stomping from the congregation became a hymn´s rhythmic accompaniment to the a capella vocals. The first published use of the term ´gospel song´ appeared in the mid eighteen seventies and gospel-music publishing houses emerged soon afterwards. The advent of radio fifty or so years later actually increased the awareness of, and audience for, gospel music. It was only after World War 2, though, that gospel music stepped into the mainstream, filling major auditoriums with quite elaborate and intricate performances.

The distinguishing features of gospel music include a simplistic delight in its lyrics and sounds, and the fervour, affection and adoration with which its prime performers deliver the songs.

Gospel music includes prayers to God, celebrations of God, stoicism and a readiness to help a fellow human.

In a more cynical world, these days, gospel music is sometimes, noticeably diluted when performed by those who have no belief in what they are singing to or about.

Love of life, though, shone in the eyes of every choir member tonight, and too, a gratitude for the lifestyle that has been bestowed upon them, even on this water-less land. Lanzarote Gospel Choir convinces me they are the real thing. To borrow a title from a Neil Diamond song (recorded by The Monkees), that with a slight tweak to its lyrics could have been an archetypal gospel song, I´m A Believer.

For the final offerings the musical director, in a pink baseball cap, worn the right way round, and blue jeans and white t, and with the swagger of the streets rather than the aisle of any church, led the choir through Until I Die, and finally the iconic Oh Happy Day. This featured yet another excellent soloist, brought out of the choir to centre stage, and then left hanging whilst Ezequiel engaged in a lengthy comedy monologue with the audience. By the time he returned to his instrument, though, whatever nerves she might have had were gone and she delivered an ecstatic version, supported by an ensemble that was sending its sounds to roll around the heavens. The audience roar at the end of the show was deafening, and as other choir members stepped down into the auditorium to greet friends and family, Anne (the English singer) even came and had a word with us. She apparently reads our pages at Lanzarote Information on-line and she gracefully agreed to grant Sidetracks and Detours an exclusive interview and we will post that, too, on Friday 14th February.

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