WHAT IS GOSPEL MUSIC? by Pablo R. Bedrossian

The author of this article singing in the Cotton Club, Harlem, New York

(Translation by Mona Lineberger)

It is difficult to define a musical genre; it is not only a matter of rhythm.  In the case of Gospel Music, a genre that takes its name from the English word gospel (evangel), which means good news, it is even more complicated because it concerns a music style that clearly supports a defined content:  the Christian message.  The music feeds off the lyrics which have the only purpose of announcing and celebrating Jesus.

Gospel music began in the United States in the middle of the first part of the XX century in Afro-American churches.  It came from the fusion of two currents or musical genres:  spirituals, songs of faith and hope of Black slaves that had embraced the Christian faith, and traditional hymns from “Anglo” churches whose rich tradition still prevails today. These hymns began to grow strongly through the movement expanded by John Wesley, who, although known as the father of the Methodist Church, can also be considered as the initiator of the modern evangelical movement.

Gospel Music is a type of popular music to be used in congregations. The rhythm is simple but naturally followed with the swaying of the body or clapping of the hands.  The verses are crowned by the chorus which is repeated numerous times.  The soloists are backed up by choirs; even though the music has a simple melody and it’s easy to learn, it possesses rich and strong harmonies.  Mass choirs, massive choirs that participate in religious services in the United States, are characterized precisely by singing in four-voice harmonies.  In addition, gospel music encourages improvisation, which the soloist realizes over the choral base of the lyrics.

The lyrics are clearly of a confessional nature. It does not consist in a lukewarm declaration of faith but in a courageous and decided declaration of faith in Jesus as Savior.  Pardon through his blood, the cross, love, faith, suffering, victory and hope of his return are favorite themes.  A core phrase from a song can be repeated innumerably.

Accompanying instruments vary, however the piano, the electric organ (an instrument that has become emblematic for this genre), the bass and the drums stand out for the rhythmic bases that they build.  Improvised piano solos are also characteristic (gospel music is one of the fountains from which jazz is inspired).

People talk about southern gospel music, a genre much closer to hymns than spirituals.  It is less rhythmic than gospel and has very little improvisation, although it is also based on four-voice harmonies and the structure of verses followed by a chorus.  In my opinion, this is not true gospel music but rather “white” music, a decaffeinated version of the original genre.  I do not question its beauty but the pretense of classifying itself as gospel.

Contemporary gospel music, on the other hand, is Afro-American music, which having started from gospel, incorporated new musical genres such as R&B, soul and pop, creating a fusion which, I think,  has taken away its original identity.  This fusion multiplies the rhythmic strength, keeps the choral base on which the soloist improvises, repeats the choruses with such frequency that it may become tiring or boring despite the shrilling notes, close to mystical or spiritual ecstasies.

In Latin America, Contemporary Christian music is also called gospel, but this nomenclature largely exceeds the limits of the musical genre.  The only common ground is its message and modernism, but the musical form may be very different.

I had the privilege, on various occasions, of attending Baptist churches in Harlem, New York’s famous Black neighborhood, where gospel music is cultivated genuinely and passionately. I have been to large churches such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where one has to stand in line for two hours to hear its famous choir, and small churches with only 50 people in attendance with ample empty spaces in which to sit comfortably.  At each occasion, I felt the same thing:  a spiritual stirring as I heard Jesus Christ worshipped in such a powerful way.  In these occasions I wondered what moved these people to sing with such fervor.  While meditating on this thought, I was convinced that gospel music is the musical incarnation of a live and contagious faith which reveals and shares an experience of profound communion with God.

© Pablo R. Bedrossian, 2010. All rights reserved.

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