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Spreading the gospel of gospel in Japan
by Davis Barrager
The Japan Times
Japan, a nation with a warm embrace for musical forms as diverse as classical and jazz, and the musical talent to perform them well, has a new rage that's now a boomlet with boom potential. It's black gospel singing, and Japan's two leading gospel gurus, Ron Rucker, a native of Albany, N.Y., and Alexander Easley, originally from Pennsylvania, say that some Japanese have proven they can very good at this form, too.
"If I closed my eyes and listened to Akiko Nishimura," said Rucker, gently shaking his head in disbelief, "I would swear she was a good black gospel singer back in the States. Another very good one is Pat Ojima, an Okinawan woman and also a friend of mine."
Both Rucker and Easley have been in Japan for about 20years. Easley is an accomplished dancer (pop, jazz, hip hop). Rucker, who teaches gospel, also plays various musical instruments; both men are singers. Both have cut a number of albums in Japan.
Rucker noted that half of the students in his gospel music seminars are semiprofessional singers and some are professionals who sing in clubs. Easley works with a Christian band called Rise that is now "very busy at Japanese weddings," he said, emphasizing that black gospel singing at Japanese weddings is now "a big boom."
What inspired the Japanese interest in black gospel is its "distinctive feeling," said Rucker, who publishes the Gospel Newsletter and operates a singing school, the Vocal Fitness Center, in Western Tokyo.
"The spirit of God is in the music," said Rucker as Easley nodded (both are devout Christians). "It's that feeling, that wabi and that sabi, that comes through to the Japanese even if they don't always grasp the lyrics. It's a feeling that endures in the DNA of American blacks, a feeling that expressed their hope for a life in the hereafter better than the miserable lives they led as the slaves of usually hard, heartless masters."
Black gospel singing, a form developed only in the United States, traces its roots to black slaves' early adaptations of the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the English founder of the Methodist movement. Wesleyand his brother published a book of hymns that were brought to the New World and used in American churches, especially in Methodist churches. The hymns were used in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by Richard Allen (1760-1831), a free black American who in 1799 become the first black to be ordained in the Methodist Church.
"The Methodists were the first church, and at that time the only one, to admit blacks into the congregation," said Rucker. "They permitted blacks to sit in the balcony. Although the slave owners forbade their slaves from learning to read, there was always someone in the congregation, usually a deacon, who could read, and that person would line out the hymns and teach them through the call-and-response method ----he or she would read it and the others would respond to it, line by line, until it was learned.
"You can see, then, that black gospel is not simply something you can just write down and learn to sing," he said. "It's an old oral tradition that started with slaves from different tribes in Africa who spoke various different languages."
By the early 1900s the black gospel singing that grew out of the call-and-response method had taken a more specific form called "spiritual music." It spread all over the northern U.S. and was especially strong in Chicago, and not in the larger black churches but rather in the small "storefront churches" typically having 20 to 30 members.
"It was in fact rejected by many of the bigger black churches as being "too bluesy,'" said Easley. "It had many blues chords in it." It was some years before it was to be known as black gospel singing. What it needed first was a catalyst, someone who would see its possibilities and propel it forward as a musical form. That someone was Thomas A. Dorsey, "the father of black gospel."
Early in the century Dorsey attended a national convention of black Baptist churches and heard a man named E.O.Excell singing the spiritual "I Do, Don't You?" Dorsey was so inspired that he started writing the tunes that were later to become known as "gospel."
In so doing, he was considerably influenced by another black singer, Charles A. Tindley, who took the hymns of Wesley and another Wesleyan Protestant and arranged them in a kind of black spiritual style. Dorsey readily acknowledged his creative debt to Tindley, and also to "a smart woman in his office, singer Sallie Martin," said Easley, "who wisely got his songs copyrighted so he could eventually live off the royalties, as in fact he did."
Despite Dorsey's efforts to give black gospel a jumpstart, black churches did not readily go along. They permitted him to sing only after the regular service was over, and this he did, together with Sallie Martin and Willie Mae Ford Smith, another top black gospel singer.
Not until the 1940s did black gospel choirs appear, said Rucker. "The 1940s brought a great awakening of black gospel music, partly through the influence of Dwight Moody. Later came the development of white gospel music, or what is now known as contemporary Christian music, a form influenced by both black blues and country and western."
In the past two years black gospel singing has received more attention because of the movie "Sister Act" and its sequel starring comedienne Whoopee Goldberg, in which black gospel played a prominent part, and from Whitney Houston's role as a gospel singer in the recent film "The Preacher's Wife." Black gospel singers and groups have achieved fame; the brother-sister duo BeBe and CeCe Winans, well-known crossover singers from gospel to pop, are among the best known.
"Being a good singer of black gospel songs is not so much a matter of being a good singer," said Rucker. "Rather, it's a matter of having soul, whether you're Japanese or Russian or whatever ---in fact, a number of American black gospel singers did go to Russia and settled there in the 1920s. "In Japan I'm trying to give my students the roots of gospel, to help them understand what it is and what's unique about it, and impart the special feeling that is black gospel's alone."
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