A call to the public for gospel singers

Music: From a desire for closer community ties comes a chance for just about anyone to perform at Columbia Festival of the Arts.

May 28, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

What started as a casual conversation between friends grew into a performance slot at the 14th annual Columbia Festival of the Arts - one that's open to the public.

"If you can carry a tune, come on out and participate," says Asa Lee, the liaison between the community group that came up with the idea (they're calling themselves the Gospel Music Committee of Howard County) and festival coordinators.

What Lee is inviting people to is first a series of free gospel workshops, beginning Friday, in Ellicott City and led by the Rev. Carolyn Bryant of Philadelphia, who has sung traditional gospel everywhere from Carnegie Hall to state fairs.

The workshops will be divided into two parts: lectures, which will focus on gospel music's roots in American culture, and rehearsals, which will prepare singers-to-be for the second part of the program - an optional choir performance during the arts festival's Gospel Jubilee celebration June 20 at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia.

The project was conceived when Mike Clark, who coordinates outreach efforts at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, mentioned to friend and community advocate Sandra T. Gray that a woman in his congregation was thinking about starting a gospel choir. The pair got to talking and decided that was just the sort of thing to draw Howard County residents closer together.

"What we really wanted to do was build a sense of community, and we felt that music was a good strategy to do that" Gray says. "We thought, `Wouldn't it be great to have a choir not connected to one church or any denomination?' It would enable people from all walks of life and from every church or synagogue or mosque to come together just as community citizens."

The county has a choir that does that: the Vision - Howard County Gospel Choir, which came about last fall as a community-based group. But Gray, who is chairwoman of the Vision - Howard County civic group, wanted a different choir, one that would get a lot of attention and lead people to join the Vision - Howard County choir.

In other words, Gray wanted a bait choir.

"Our goal is to share; we don't want to hoard anything," says Gray, who lives in Columbia. "The more people we can engage in it, the healthier we think the community spirit will be. ... It's a win-win situation."

So Gray and Clark culled gospel-loving acquaintances from different social circles, Lee included, held a brainstorming session and decided to pitch their plan to the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which draws thousands with a variety of performances, exhibits and classes, many with nationally known artists. This year, events will run from June 15 through June 30.

"Each year, usually one community group knocks on our door with a project," says Katherine Knowles, the festival's executive director. "And we have it within our mission and goals to support fully basically one project per year. This is the one this year."

Knowles says she was taken with the group and its initiative for two main reasons. One was that the group was made up of people with diverse backgrounds and had as its aim involving the same, and the other was the group's particular vehicle for the choir's assembly.

"Gospel music is an important art form in the United States; it's an important part of the history in our country," says Knowles, who lives in Columbia. "It's influenced every musical art form we see today."

Bryant says gospel came from spirituals African-Americans sang in the days of slavery and is intertwined with Christian beliefs.

"The roots of gospel come from a black person's struggle," she says. "The songs are a means of escape, a way out of despair, a way out of frustration, a way out of struggling through the gospel and song."

But it doesn't belong solely to one religion or one race anymore, she says. All sorts of people are embracing the music's meaning and melody.

"The message of gospel is a unifying one; it's got a general theme of hope and peace and love despite the religious nature," says Lee, who is the minister of music at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia. "We're trying to promote it as an American cultural icon in the same way jazz is a cultural icon. Hymns like `Amazing Grace' are gospel hymns, but today we just see them as American hymns."

The Gospel Jubilee performance takes place June 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia, 5460 Trumpeter Road. Tickets are $18 to $25. Information: 410-715-3044 or www.columbiafestival.com.

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