How Black Caribbean Pentecostals Put Their Music On The Map

The London Community Gospel Choir celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022.

There are around 4,000 predominantly black churches in Britain today with over 300,000 members. It’s a term I wouldn’t say I like, because it’s way too sociological; it is an artificial construction, devoid of any theology, and limits any understanding of it. Black Pentecostal is a much better term because it more adequately describes this ecclesial community.

The general assumption in Britain is that Black Pentecostals are a homogeneous group. But nothing can be further from the truth. It is a diverse community, made up of Independents, Established Denominations, “Oneness” Pentecostals (Jesus only), Trinitarians, Apostolics, and Sabbatarians, and although they all have much in common, they also differ significantly.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Pentecostals from the Caribbean arrived in Britain, it didn’t take long for them to establish their churches. They met in “prayer meetings”, in each other’s homes, and from there moved to rented rooms before buying their churches.

The Church of God in Christ (1953) is Britain’s oldest Black Caribbean Pentecostal church, and it has paved the way for others. They included the New Testament Church of God, the Church of God of Prophecy, the Bethel United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic), the New Testament Assembly and the International Church of the Firstborn, officially. known as the Church of God.

Music was at the heart of these newly arrived Christians, and in their services they had hardly any instruments to accompany their singing, perhaps only a tambourine. But that didn’t stop them from holding their offices, and as more and more of them they can at least boast of having a guitarist or a pianist. With this, they could now clap their hands as they worshiped, stomp their feet, sway their bodies and shout hallelujah, both as a reminder of the “hot times” in the home church and a sign of the way they wanted to serve God. in the new country.

Most of the musicians who came could not read a musical score and because of that, played “by ear” or how they heard the music. This meant that if a musician was visiting a church and wanted to play their instrument during the service, all they had to do was settle in alongside the existing musicians and join them and play. At first this ad hoc arrangement and range of musical abilities worked quite well, as most players could be relied upon to keep a steady beat, but sometimes the music left a lot to be desired.

Hymns and choirs dominated the song, reminiscent of the days when Anglican and American churches had enormous influence in the region. The hymns came with the hymn book, “Hymns Ancient and Modern,” introduced in Jamaica in 1861, and the choirs came later when American missionaries arrived in Jamaica.

Singing to rhythm is a common practice in churches in the Caribbean, and whether it is singing a hymn, chorus or song, it is done in rhythm. Until recently, the Caribbean “followed” their hymns, that is, when a member of the congregation reads aloud, line by line, the words of a hymn as it is sung, and with this, the congregation joins her, singing each line simultaneously until the hymn is finished.

The idea of ​​’following a hymn’ is believed to originate in Scotland, taken to the southern states of America where it is referred to as a ‘liner’, and in the 1780s it found its way to ‘in Jamaica. Today this type of singing no longer exists, but it was once a familiar way of singing in churches in the Caribbean.

Apart from hymns, the Caribbean sang choirs all the time in their services, and although they are rarely heard today, they were once the distinct identity and expression of Church music in the Caribbean. . They are a mix of Jamaican folk songs and southern gospel songs, and when a congregation unites to sing them, the late Joel Edwards described it as incorporating “a bold simplicity and urgency, conveyed by repetitive frankness. and without compromise ”.

In “Fire Next Time”, James Baldwin compares them to “the saints rejoicing, the sinner groaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and shouting holy to the Lord”.

The choirs grew out of the “Great Awakening” tradition in America, when after a period of economic, social and political failure, the country turned to God in a time of mass prayer meetings, repentance and of spiritual renewal.

By the 1850s this sense of spiritual awareness reached Jamaica and there the songs and religious expression of the “Great Awakening” merged with native Jamaican music and African beliefs. From this, the Jamaican revivalist tradition was born, with song, rocking, drumming, dancing and stomping. Jamaican Pentecostals took many of them to Britain, and for many years they were a feature of Caribbean worship.

For more than seventy years, Caribbean Christians have been a quiet witness in Britain. Until recently, what most people knew about them was what they saw every Sunday – groups of Caribbean Christians coming to church with their families following them. In all fairness, that’s about all they knew, and it wasn’t surprising, as Christians in the Caribbean tended to stay isolated, away from mainstream society, preferring to develop their churches and families.

The big change came in 1969 when Edwin Hawkins, the American gospel singer, produced a reworking of an old 18th century Baptist hymn, “Oh Happy Day that Fixed my Choice”. All the Christians in the Caribbean knew the song because they sang it regularly in their churches. What Hawkins did was rework that old hymn, write it a new arrangement, give it a modern beat, and in so doing, create a phenomenon.

In 1969 Hawkins released “Oh, Happy Day” and it became the biggest gospel hit ever. It reached number 4 on the US pop charts, number 2 in the UK, and number 1 in France and Germany. It sold over seven million copies, and since the song was no longer copyrighted, Hawkins claimed all the proceeds.

For more than twenty years this interest in gospel music continued in Britain, and by the 1980s record companies were so convinced that the next great music would be gospel that they entered the Community. of the Caribbean to see if they could find a gospel choir to replicate what Hawkins had done earlier. They found the London Community Gospel Choir and The Inspirational Choir and signed them both.

Throughout the 1980s this interest in gospel continued and the music was heard regularly on radio in Britain, on television, at concerts, colleges, universities and at major pop festivals. , including Glastonbury!

Even in the pop music of the time, you could hear the influence in songs from James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Staple Singers and pretty much every artist from Tamla Motown who dominated the airways. Moreover, whenever these artists did an interview, they always mentioned their education in church and gospel, only adding to the growing interest in music in Britain.

Gospel was also in the West End too. It was in “Amen Corner”, the play by James Baldwin, in “King” the musical based on the life of the great man, and in “Mama, I want to sing”, the musical which marked the life of Doris Troy (“Just a Look”) from a Pentecostal house on Broadway.

The BBC also got involved and in 1982 broadcast their first gospel program “Songs of Praise” from Southwark Cathedral. It starred Sam King, who arrived in 1948 on the Windrush Empire and who in 1982 was the mayor of Southwark – its first black mayor. Channel 4 followed and commissioned “People Get Ready”, the very first gospel music series on British television.

Despite all this growing interest in gospel music, church leaders in the Caribbean were initially reluctant to accept and embrace it because it smelled too much of secular or mundane music. What brought about the change were the young people who supported it, the weight of the record companies behind and the success of music in America, where it was becoming important.

As all of this was going on, white Christians, especially those of the evangelical tradition, noted what was going on. They described the Caribbean service as a vibrant cult and were slowly influenced by it. The popularity of gospel music has also inspired them, as has the spontaneity of Caribbean worship.

Soon they modernized their services and one of the first things they did was throw out their church pews, freeing up space for a more relaxed and informal attitude to worship. In addition, they began to change their music and, rather than relying on the organ, they introduced modern instruments including acoustic guitars, flutes, and the piano, creating a new sweet and Christian folk sound. .

White Christian groups also improved their playing, especially in the area of ​​their performances and in the commercial development of their music. “Word” and “Kingsway Music” have supported evangelical artists, and people like Graham Kendrick have come to the fore.

What gospel music has done for Pentecostal churches in the Caribbean is that it has given them a profile that contradicts their size and influence. It is much easier to have a black gospel choir on TV than a white Christian band or performer. It is easier to get a glimpse of this church community in documentaries and profiles, as the network of its influence and the extent of its reach extend far.

Even in the pop world, many of the musicians and backing vocals behind the biggest names in the industry hail from the gospel community and first cut their teeth in the London community and Inspirational gospel choirs.

Gospel music in Britain is evolving and music is undergoing another change as African artists now bring their gifts and talent to music.

Roy Francis is a former BBC award-winning “Songs of Praise” producer and author of “Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain”.


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