Get Ready to Tap Your Feet with the Harlem Gospel Choir

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I wouldn’t call myself a classic gospel music lover — in other words, I don’t listen to gospel CDs or go to gospel concerts on a regular basis….in fact, it’s rare that gospel falls on my radar and yet when I hear it, I always find my spirits uplifted immediately. It’s not hard to see why since its enthusiastic, happy and peppy and when it’s not, a gospel version of Amazing Grace with a little blues and jazz thrown in, can be life changing.

Since I’ve been trying to cover other New York City boroughs and less traveled to areas in recent months, I found myself taking in some of the best brunches in Harlem and exploring the foodie scene in the Bronx. On that adventure, I discovered the Harlem Gosepl Choir, which is touted as the top gospel choir in America. Who knew? I then learned not long after that discovery that they were performing in a week’s time at BBK Blues in Times Square, and so, we got tickets and off we went.

Imagine an invigorating performance that is a cross between a musical, a jazz and blues performance and the hippest church service you can imagine attending. Performing contemporary gospel with a touch of jazz and blues, the world famous Harlem Gospel Choir is synonymous with power vocals, glorious sound and infectious energy.

The Harlem Gospel Choir is also not new — the choir has been performing around the globe for over two decades. Deeply rooted in the history of the African-American slave trade, black gospel music can be traced back to the 1700’s when African slaves brought their unique African musical heritage to America and combined it with their new faith – Christianity.

Out of the hardship and the trials of slavery, this unique musical tradition came to be, and forever changed music as we know it. Blues, Soul, and Rock-and-Roll…they all have origins in black gospel music. Harlem Gospel Choir presents modern gospel classics as performed in the black churches of Harlem today, which after tapping your toes and smiling ear-to-ear for over an hour, makes you want to visit one.

Their performance is very experiential and starts with a buffet brunch with a wide spread of classic southern fare: sweet potatoes with marshmallows, collard greens, bacon and sausage, eggs, grits, barbecue chicken, turkey with potatoes, and biscuits with gravy — you get the idea. Yum! We had a massive plateful together with a Mimosa, which they were offering on the day, along with tea and coffee.

It’s hard for me to sit in the back of a theatre when there’s live music performing, especially when you want to take photos and see the sweat pouring off their faces in real time — there’s something very raw and beautiful about being that close to performers. And so, as always we sat in the front, which means we had close-up views of every singer, the way it should be of course.

Everyone in the group has equally powerful voices and they all come with their own unique personalities, which is demonstrated through the song that they choose to lead. After each song, another member of the choir takes the lead on the next song and so on, from Holy Holy Holy and O Happy Day to Amazing Grace, Walking in the Spirit and Praise Him.

They encourage audience participation which ranges from getting up on stage to sing with the band, to dancing with them for a song or two (on stage), to bringing a child up and praising their essence – talk about a confident boosting act for a shy child who will likely remember that wondrous moment for years to come.

Since I happen to be a Thanksgiving birthday baby, I found myself up on stage with other November and December birthdays in the audience, kicking, dancing and grooving to the dynamic and explosive energy of the singers and accompanying guitarist, drummer and keyboard player.

Their energy is most definitely infectious and whether you’re religious or not or into gospel music or not, you’d be hard pressed not to find yourself dancing up a storm and singing Hallelujah once or twice before you leave.

Harlem Gospel Choir have performed alongside superstars such as Bono, Diana Ross, The Gorillaz, Andre Rieu and most recently Damon Albarn and Pharrell Williams. They have performed for three Presidents (President Obama, President Carter and President Nelson Mandela), two Popes (Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI) and have recorded with the likes of Sir Keith Richards, The Chieftains, and Trace Adkins.

The choir was founded by Allen Bailey who got the idea for the choir while attending a celebratory lunch in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 15, 1986, at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He had noticed the great number of tourists lining up outside the many Harlem Churches to hear and see the church gospel choirs. Allen thought it might be a good idea to take the Harlem Church experience to the places where tourists lived….and that’s when Harlem Gospel Choir was born.

Below, I had an opportunity to meet Allen after the performance.

Their harmonious songs of love and hope and inspiration will touch the depths of your soul, lift your spirit, and take your breath away – need we say more about whether we give this performance a two thumbs up! To find out where they’ll be performing near you, you can visit their website for more information and tour schedules as well as how to purchase their CD. Below are two short video snippets I shot during the show.

All photo and video credits: Renee Blodgett.

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