Live Gospel Music

Teatro San Bartolome, Lanzarote

The Soul Of Gospel

performed byJoshua Nelson Gospel Singers

review by Norman Warwick

Joshua Nelson is Black and Jewish and he goes by the nickname “the prince of kosher gospel,” and he has called himself “the KKK‘s worst nightmare.” His grandparents emigrated to the US from Senegal, and he became fascinated with music when he was only eight years old, while living in Brooklyn. His fascination lasted after he graduated from Newark‘s Performing Arts High School. Nelson was the high school’s official soloist for the four years he studied there. He went on to do a 2-year college and kibbutz program in Israel studying at the Hebrew Union College as well as at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

While attending Hebrew University, he started blending Hebrew texts with gospel melodies and arranging Jewish hymns in gospel style, resulting in solo CDs like “Hebrew Soul” (2004) and “Mi Chamocha” (2005).

Both of Mr. Nelson’s parents are Jewish, and his family attended temple at a black synagogue in Brooklyn, then switched to Sharey Tefilo-Israel, in South Orange, New Jersey, a reform synagogue with a liberal reputation.

Nelson is both a Jewish Gospel singer in the tradition of Mahalia Jackson, and a full-time Hebrew teacher in the Hebrew school at Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in South Orange, NJ, when he is not on the road. He also serves as director of music at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, which is housed in the building of a former synagogue (the former B’nai Jeshurun).

Nelson has performed with musical legends including Wynton Marsalis, (an artist we frequently refer to in my daily blog, Sidetrack And  Detours)  and Aretha Franklin and Stephanie Mills and Billy Preston, as well as gospel singers Albertina Walker, the Barrett SistersHezekiah WalkerKirk, FranklinDottie PeoplesDorothy NorwoodVanessa Bell ArmstrongTimothy WrightCarlton Pearson, and Bobby Jones & New Life. Nelson also performs frequently with the Jewish Klezmer band The Klezmatics, and performed with the late jazz greats Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie.

Nelson sang before Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson in 2001, and performed for an audience in Jerusalem that included the then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

A film was made about Nelson entitled Keep on Walking: Joshua Nelson: The Jewish Gospel Singer (2000). It was voted Best Documentary in the Northampton Film Festival, and won the Best Film Award (the Paul Robeson Award) at the Newark Black Film Festival.

The film aired on PBS and affiliate networks nationally in 2003 and 2004. Internationally it aired on the national networks of Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Israel, and Italy in 2003 and 2004.

Nelson’s TV credits include “A+ for Kids” on WWOR-TV; “SingSation,” a Gospel program taped in Chicago and broadcast nationally on CBS-TV (1995–97, 2005); and Black Entertainment Television‘s The Bobby Jones Gospel Hour (1995–2003). Nelson also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired October 2004 and December 2004. Alongside Jamie Fox, Mr. Nelson was named by Oprah as “The Next Big Thing.”

In 2013, Nelson performed and was interviewed in part four of the BBC documentary The Story of the Jews. It was broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC Two in September 2013, and in the United States on PBS in March and April 2014.

A year later Nelson spoke to Amy Klein for the  Hadassah magazine, and that articlke is still on-line today.

Aretha Franklin turned gospel music into love songs.

And Joshua Nelson made gospel kosher.

All Nelson was doing when he came up with the fusion was bringing both parts of his heritage—African-American and Jewish—together.

It all began more than two decades ago when Nelson was teaching Hebrew school in South Orange, New Jersey. He saw the students were kind of…bored. He started doing a call-and-response technique they often do in yeshivas and churches. Nelson called out “Barukh ata” and had the class answer, and then he responded with a melodious “Aaammmeen!”

“I realized they were learning this way, and that’s how kosher gospel music was born,” he says.

An amalgamation of jewish prayers and songs set to standard gospel tunes, kosher gospel has revitalized the Jewish soul.

“I felt the music was lacking in the prayers in the Reform movement. That’s where I took the soul music and put it to Hebrew.” Soul, he says, “brings people closer to Hashem.”

Nelson, 41, doesn’t teach Hebrew school anymore because he has been too busy performing around the world, for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His album, Mi Chamocha, is sung with stars from Aretha Franklin to the Klezmatics, and he’s the subject of the documentary Keep on Walking: Joshua Nelson, The Jewish Gospel Singer.

To imagine what kosher gospel is, sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” mashed up with “Hinei Matov.” But it pales in comparison to experiencing it.

Picture a stage with four African- American singers crooning into the microphones. The audience of some 300—mostly older Jews—is clapping along on a cold Christmas day at The Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. Offstage we hear a beautiful tenor singing “Adon Olam” to a jaunty, upbeat tune. From behind the curtain emerges Nelson, an olive-skinned man with hazel eyes and muttonchops, wearing a burgundy bejeweled kippa and a floor-length, cream-colored A-line tunic, also decorated with jewels, reminiscent of a hazzan—or a prince. Which is Nelson’s moniker: The Prince of Kosher Gospel.

Nelson’s whole mission is to do good in the world, to bring the soul into Judaism. Not that it hadn’t been there. The “A-a-a-a-ni Ma’a-a-amin”—he trills the plaintive melody, often sung in times of Jewish troubles—“are all minor chords,” he says. “I saw the similarities [to gospel] right off the bat when I would read the prayers.”

Nelson, the third of six kids, was born to a Jewish mother of Romanian descent who was given up for adoption in the 1950s because she was half-black. Nelson’s African-American grandparents, who trace their roots to Senegal, raised his mother and her six children as Jewish. “I learned more about Judaism from my grandmother taking care of my mother than anything else,” Nelson says. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, in his grandparents’ house, with his mother, stepfather and siblings.

“My grandparents raised us in a home that didn’t give us many boundaries,” he says. “They let us explore and come to our own being—it was a very heavy Jewish identity.”

Nelson describes his childhood Judaism as “very dedicated,” getting up every morning to go to different shuls, from Orthodox to Reform to Chabad to Sefardic and Black Hebrew. “I wanted to know all the synagogues in my community, to be able to pray in every one of them.” He was very forthcoming about his Judaism as a kid, wore a kippa every day, looking like a “Chabad kid.”

“Growing up as a Jew I knew I was black, but we were really more Jewish,” he recalls. “We infused African-American culture with our Judaism.”

When he was 8 years old, Nelson found an album by Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, in his grandparents’ basement. He fell in love with her singing and spirit. “Mahalia Jackson had a Jewish soul,” he says. He took it upon himself to preserve her music. (“She was the queen and I’m the prince.”)

He first went to Israel with his synagogue on a high school trip and had a very spiritual experience at the Western Wall. He spent two years in Israel on a college kibbutz program through Temple University and Hebrew Union College, studying political science and Hebrew. One day, when he heard the choir at The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, he thought they sounded like Jackson. He suddenly understood he could integrate both parts of his black and Jewish identity. He took Jewish liturgy and set it to his favorite sounds.

Some liken Nelson to another musical Jewish innovator, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “Rabbi Carlebach himself spent a lot of time in Harlem with black musicians,” says Rabbi Perry Berkowitz of the East Side Synagogue in New York, “and he utilized a lot of what he was, how lively the music was, how it reaches inside the soul and has the ability to lift the spirit.” Berkowitz shares the pulpit with his sister, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, at their Upper East Side synagogue, where Nelson leads a kosher gospel service on the High Holidays.

“I always tell the congregation,” Perry Berkowitz says, “that when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel went to the synagogues of all the different denominations and he found that all of them…lacked the fervor, the warmth and the intensity of the synagogues he knew from his childhood in Warsaw. When he started to travel with Martin Luther King to Baptist churches and elsewhere, he was taken with the music, and that was the power he was looking for.” The Berkowitzes see that in Nelson’s kosher gospel. They had met Nelson when he was just starting out in his late teens. “We were there in the very beginning, when he was unknown, and as soon as we heard him, we said, ‘He’s got the spirit,’” recalls Berkowitz.

Nelson is far from unknown these days. In 2004, he performed on Winfrey’s show and, that year, she dubbed him “The Next Big Thing.”

And, he tells the audience, he and his band recently performed for her again, in her “backyard” (“A football field!” he jokes) to honor civil rights activists. (The performance will air on Oprah’s OWN network on June 18.) “You know, Hannah Senesh was a civil rights activist,” he says from the stage, referring to the hero who was sent during World War II to Yugoslavia from Mandatory Palestine to help save Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz; arrested, tortured and executed, Senesh never revealed the mission. “We don’t call her that, but that’s what she was doing.”

This is nelson’s charm—not just his mellifluous voice, but his storytelling, too. For example, he connects the words “Hinei Matov U’manayim Shevet Ahim Gam Yahad” to Shabbat. “Shevet is Shabbat. You have harmony, peace, you can sit down and rest.” Then he segues into the difference between work and rest, how the bumblebees work, the humming birds work and the African slaves worked.

For him, that’s what gospel music is about. Although one of the definitions of gospel is Christian teaching, he is quick to point out that gospel music predates Christianity and, for that matter, religion.

“It’s African, it’s not Christian at all—the Christianity came later,” he explains. The slaves, he says, sang spirituals as work songs. When they learned Bible from their slave masters, they used the symbolism from there. It was also the way they communicated. “Down by the Riverside,” for example (“Gonna lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside”), could have meant, “we’re meeting by the riverside to escape.”

Today, Nelson, who is single, still lives in New Jersey, where he and his sister cared for their grandmother until she passed away two years ago. The rest of the family live in Virginia, but they all gather on Passover for a big celebration—Passover being an important holiday for black Jews, celebrating freedom from slavery.

Nelson’s levity and humor are all in service of his deeper message. “I think it’s about taking every piece of who you are and recognizing it,” he says. On Shabbat, for example, he has cornbread instead of halla and fried chicken in place of roasted.

He recounts how Heschel marched with King in the 1960s. “Rabbi Heschel saw what was going on in Germany was similar to what was going on with African-Americans,” he says. “Civil rights are about everyone’s rights. I try to build those bridges to help each other learn from each other. The more friends we have the more family we have. Although the black and Jewish communities are not as intimately tied as they once were, they have the same values.”

That’s why he has all his singers visit Auschwitz. “You can’t understand African oppression unless you understand Jewish oppression,” he says. “As a child, I had to accept myself as a black Jew or I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”

For Nelson, of course, it’s all a part of him: his African-American and Jewish cultural heritage, Jewish history, civil rights, “Adon Olam” and “Down by the Riverside.”

“Some black Jews disassociate themselves from their Africanism—they take on an identity that’s just Jewish and don’t keep the flavor [of their heritage],” he says. But there’s nothing wrong with being both. “You can still be you and be Jewish—you don’t have to change yourself, you don’t have to get rid of your soul.”

And now, in another period of tension for his country, Joshua Nelson is here to with a much-loved gospel show.

The Soul of Gospel is not only a musical show, but is also an experience that leaves no one indifferent. The Soul of Gospel is rooted in the best African-American musical traditions and represents a community culture where free expression and beauty go hand in hand. 

We met our two anonymous friends at a location that we can´t divulge, and they drove us to the venue, via Teguise so we could enjoy a meal. Because the kitchen had closed at our favourite El Recoveco,  the management re-opened for us but it all became a little bit Fawlty Towers in terms of service, and the waiter and owner returned to our table several times to say that what we had just ordered was no longer available, it ended up pretty much a luck of the draw as to what we were going to eat. Two of us had lamb, one had a mushroom risotto kind of thing and the other had a vegan hamburger, which seemed a tasty contradiction in terms. The service though, was always smiley, and we noticed that having re-opened the kitchen, they were being inundated  by new orders from those who had been drinking outside.

Whatever impression the paragraph above might create I ought to tell you that there were around forty people at the outside tables drinking wine and laughing and chatting, and twenty yards from our table there was a beautiful Christmas grotto, an authentic Father Christmas and a children´s carousel, with softly played Christmas music and the square was exquisitely lit by colourful lighting. It was magical and peaceful and felt like we had gone back to a gentler time. It was definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

There was then a slight mix up over the bill at El Recoveco de NarA, that was amicably resolved and we set off down the road to St Bartolome in plenty of time to park up and walk to the Teatro..

The walk from the car to the theatre was glorious, with the long trunks of the palm tress beautifully adorned by Christmas lights as was the theatre entrance  and the main town square, accommodating this year´s Belen was dream-like.

Inside, as we took our seats, we realised the theatre was already very nearly full, and by the time tonight´s guests took to the stage, we were only a few seats short of a full house. We have enjoyed a few gospel events in the eight years we have been here and were fans particularly, of the Lanzarote Gospel Choir, which was a bundle of energy, musicality and merriment.

Tonight´s act from America took all this to another level. Before the lights went down we had noticed there were four chairs and a piano situated on stage, and these were then filled by Joshua Nelson on the piano stool and three female singers and one male on the four chairs. Not that they sat for long. After two soulful numbers had opened the programme it became a swaying and sashaying show, and to keep the alliteration going, a sincere outpouring of religious and joyous emotion.

Joshua himself is a force of nature, at times a Jerry Lee Lewis figure, all vamp and musical stomp and at others as if an old jazz man gently tickling the ivories. In looks and attire, however, he cut a Stevie Wonder character and in fact as I write that I realise that is who his rich and raspy vocal style most reminded me of.

The Walls Of Jericho Came Tumbling Down, The Saints Went Marching In and When Jesus Washed Our Sins Away it was indeed a Happy Day and as I looked around me at an audience that was on its feet clapping along, and swaying as if enraptured to the music, I wondered, not for the first time about Lanzarote´s relationship with gospel music. Everybody here seemed to know the songs and to understand the ambience of the event, whether they were grandparents, mums and dads, young couples or pre-teen children with their parents..

Joshua Nelson told us between songs that he and his singers had played on Lanzarote before, even though they are based in America, and the extended encore of a medley of popular Gospel songs saw him running up and down the aisles of the theatre singing out in his attractively gravelly voice and beseeching we in the audience to ever more fervent call and response sets.

As Joshua Nelson and his singers finally left the stage I asked a young family in front of us, mum, dad, and a little lady of about six or seven perhaps, whether there is a gospel church on the island. When they replied that they didn´t know of any I asked where, then had they learned all this music and these moves and where and how had they acquired such joy and obvious love of a music that can surely hardly ever hear on the island.

The couple, and young daughter too, just smiled beatifically and said we don´t know where it comes from,…but we just love this music ! It feels right.

As the audience exited the theatre, chatting animatedly, many of them headed off through the steeply-stepped town square to admire the newly installed Belen, (a crib installation).

Because I´ve had a couple of tumbles already on an island where there is literally no soft place to fall, I took the risky assumption that after I had been so vibrantly singing His praises for the last couple of hours, The Good Lord, might guide my way down and through a gorgeous panoply of Christmas lights and images. He guided me down the steps, and then as if by a miracle turned this Christmas into truly a Wonderful Life

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