The artistic venue formerly known as the Assembly Hall, on the Mound in Edinburgh, currently known as Venue 35, could be fairly said to have some history. Emerging from the so-called Great Disruption of 1843, when the Free Church of Scotland broke away from the established Church of Scotland, it eventually, after 1929, became the meeting place for the reunified Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.
This was of more than passing interest to me because, in a small way, I also have some history with the place, having stayed in the halls of residence in the adjoining seventeenth century tenement known as Mylne’s Court, which used the dining hall of the Church building as its refectory.
In fact, in my second year in 1982 I had a sniper’s eye view of the then Pope, John Paul II, meeting the Moderator of the General Assembly in a historic first formal meeting between the heads of the Scottish Presbyterian and Catholic churches, outside the Assembly Hall.
It must have seemed a great place for a gospel choir to perform, and so it was. The chamber’s acoustics were perfect for a choir, the sound filling the room like a warm bath of musical perfection. But, hang on – gospel?
When I wrote my recent article on Americana, I mistakenly omitted gospel as one of the great strains of American music: certainly it’s the unique blend of (largely) Protestant religion and African-American singing that I think of as gospel. But if I’d come expecting a whole load of standards from the Deep South of America, I was to be simultaneously disabused and transported, as the Soweto choir did a series of dramatic, multi-part songs in African languages.
Obviously I had no idea what the songs were about, but gentle spirituals they certainly weren’t: a lot of them seemed to be back and forth between the male and female singers, with many of the choir taking the lead at different times. The sound, as I’ve said, filled the chamber, an extraordinary explosion of melodic colour that reminded me how different African music was from the Western forms.
Allied to the music was the movement. This was no conventional choir that stood stock still, hands at their sides, as we were taught to do in Carleton Primary all those years ago. They sang with their hands and feet. They moved in and out of position in the ranks, taking lead parts, gesturing at the audience, at each other, at the roof of the Hall, in time to the fantastic percussionist. I have no idea what the Reverend Thomas Chalmers, leader of the Great Disruption in 1843, would have made of it all, but to me it was a hypnotic, immersive experience, and I was clearly not alone.
As anyone who’s read my reviews of gigs before will recognise, I’m not easy to please when watching live music. My mind won’t sit – or stand still, even if I do. I’m too aware of being in a crowd of people, some of whom have – to me at least – annoying habits like falling backwards, drunk, into me, or talking loudly throughout a festival gig. Not so here. Like me, the whole crowd was rapt, waking as if from a dream to applaud when the choir fell silent between songs. I’m sure if you’d done a brain scan of us you’d have found alpha waves washing gently towards the front of the stage, or whatever waves they are when you achieve a flow state.
I was just thinking, it would be good to know what the songs are about, being one of those types that likes to know what the lyrics say, when the keyboard player switched a setting to piano and played one of those heartbreakingly soulful, bluesy, gospel piano intros, and my last wish for this gig was granted.
I’ve always been a sucker for the melody of ‘Amazing Grace,’ even when pounded out by some solo singer at some US Big Occasion, voice wobbling all over the place to show off her musical chops. Even when, as I thought, the lyrics were written by some buttoned up Victorian in the churchy equivalent of Tin Pan Alley. Well, it turns out it has a bit more resonance than that.
The gospel according to Wikipedia tells me that the words were written by English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton (1725 – 1807). And he had been, to use an overused modern term, been on quite a journey. Pressed into service in the Royal Navy as a young man, he left and became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. However, when the ship he was on was battered by a violent storm of the west coast of Ireland, he called out to God for mercy, and survived. That marked the point of his spiritual conversion, although he did continue in the slave trade till 1754 or 5, then leaving to study theology and thereafter becoming an abolitionist.
Incidentally, it wasn’t set to the music we sing it to till 1835, by American composer William Walker. The fact, therefore, that it has been adopted by black people to sing on both sides of the Atlantic rather carries an extra resonance, don’t you think? I didn’t know any of that history when the Soweto choir sang it, but there were tears in my eyes all the same. You would have had to be made of stone not to be moved in there.
After that the concert moved up a level: more African rhythms, another English language spiritual I didn’t recognise, and then, as an encore, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which got me all emosh again. I really am a soft old sod these days, but like I say, it wasn’t hard to be transported by this. I’m not conventionally religious, but I would put this down as a spiritual experience for anyone with the slightest sliver of a musical bone in their body.
What could have made it better? Standing ovation at the end? Check. The choir coming out to thank, and have photos taken with, the departing audience? Check. Two of them harmonising ‘Happy Birthday’ to Mrs F (it was part of her birthday celebration)? Check.
Go and see them. Just go and see them. The Youtube videos below won’t give you half of what you’ll get from them live. Go and see them.
I can’t find a recent version of them doing ‘Amazing Grace,’ but here’s one: