Music emanating from Britain's black majority churches continues to flow forth. Tony Cummings spoke to three acts with hot CDs out, IDMC, FOUR KORNERZ and PASTOR DAVID DANIEL & THE PEOPLE'S CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP CHOIR.
Over the years the British gospel scene has developed impressively. Where once Britain's black majority churches seemed capable of generating some excellent choirs, with LCGC dominating, today there are well over a hundred British gospel acts ranging in every conceivable style - from traditional choirs to toasting ragga rappers, from hip exponents of gospel garage to cool acapella harmonisers. Cross Rhythms spoke to three stylistically diverse acts each of whom have recently released CDs. We began our mini-survey of the British gospel scene with an act, IDMC, whom Cross Rhythms sort of featured back in 1994. We say "sort of" because back then IDMC stood for Inter District Mass Choir and they were 120 strong! I began by asking their leader and founder, John Fisher, why today's IDMC is a somewhat smaller aggregation.
"Since 1994 the group has reduced all the way down to a 22 piece unit (can you imagine the amount of KFC we had to buy when we went out to do concerts?!). Although it was fun, the cons to having this size group out weighed the pros. We released a single in 1997 called 'Only You' which was well received by the gospel and secular industry, and sold really well. The group took a break in 1998 to mid 1999 as we had a lot of group members studying and I couldn't get the commitment I needed to make the group work. At this time I was doing a lot of touring with LCGC as the principle drummer, I was running a small business, music director at church and raising a young family with my wife, so my time was strapped. But the call of IDMC was too strong to leave. Late 1999 I approached original members and recruited new members, spent nine months writing and recording a new album, re-marketed/re-packaged IDMC as a funky contemporary gospel group and in 2001 exploded back on the scene with our second album 'Take It To The Streets', a completely different sound to the first album."
IDMC have been building the momentum since then. Said John, "Last year we hit a major mile stone by recording our third and most adventurous project named 'IDMC Live PHAAT In London' which saw us record an album and DVD at Ealing Christian Centre, unassisted by a major recording company."
I asked John if he wasn't a bit fed up with the gospel choir audience demanding the Edwin Hawkins' '60s warhorse "Oh Happy Day"? He responded, "Well, the 'Oh Happy Day' kinda thing has been the key that has opened up the doors for groups like IDMC. I think the thing I have to do as a conscious contemporary brother and artist is to use this key to my advantage and try to help educate the secular music industry and the general public that there is now much more to gospel music choirs than just 'Oh Happy Day'."
One of the most unlikely IDMC bookings ever was at Luciano Pavarotti's wedding. I asked John how that come about. "Two years ago we got invited to go to Italy to do some Christmas concerts, as an introduction to the country. They went very well and we've been going back ever since. The promoter called one day and said, 'John I've got a celebrity wedding for you to do, and we want you to do it.' I said, 'Cool' (we just wanted to go to Italy again). When the promoter came to London to our last rehearsal, to sort all the final arrangements, and told us it was Luciano Pavarotti, there was silence, then I asked, 'Is there another Luciano Pavarotti in Italy?' The wedding was great. The ceremony was in Modena, in the opera theatre that Pavarotti debuted as an opera singer 40 years ago. The setting was lavish as you can just imagine. We sang four songs at the ceremony. The reception was even bigger and we were able to sing for 45 minutes and guess what? 'Oh Happy Day' wasn't on the menu. We even got to share our stage with Bono from U2 who was one of the many star guests who attended."
Last year IDMC released the urban gospel single "Lift Your Head Up". It got quite a bit of radio play but wasn't a hit. Was John disappointed? "Yes and no. I was disappointed because everyone wants their releases to be the one that will rock the establishment in a massive way, but not disappointed because the track did propel IDMC back into the gospel community and also into the secular industry in a way that we are still reaping the benefits from."
It's strange that IDMC have never received support from UK's Christian record companies. I asked John why that was. He replied ruefully, "I really don't know! It's not like we've gone to them cap in hand for a deal from them, begging for a financial hand out. All our albums have been self-funded and all I've ever wanted was support and distribution. No other unsigned gospel group in this country has recorded an album and DVD and released it on their own back ever and has the profile of IDMC. I don't know what else I can do!"
John admits that recording the CD and DVD of 'Live And PHAAT' was a massive undertaking. "There was a lot of pressure, but I had a great team around me. I wanted to present to the public an event that would be pleasing to the eye, sound fantastic, provoke fresh thought patterns and stir everyone into an acknowledgment of God's awesomeness, because truly the gig was so big. 14 singers, 14 piece orchestra, 15 dancers, eight-man visual team, 14 sound and light production team, 20-person support staff, altogether 85 people working on a vision I had a year prior. I was told by an industry insider that there isn't a British gospel project that they can compare it to. They have to put it along side the live projects coming from America, and it still leaves a lot of those projects in the shade."
If IDMC are relative veterans of Britain's gospel scene, fellow Londoners Four Kornerz are the new kids on the block. While IDMC's sound is a contemporary version of the decades old gospel choir tradition, Four Kornerz have jazzy, street funk vibes and a sound which carries a distinct Afro flavour. The group, consisting of four blood brothers - Deji (24), TJ (22), Vidal (20) and Daniel (18), grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. Relocating to London, their velvet harmonies and infectious urban grooves have made them winners at two UK song contests, Back To The Future Gospel Challenge Quest (2001) and Talkgospel.com's Newcomers Competition(2002), plus reaching the London heats finals for national TV talent competition GMTV Gospel Challenge (2003). Signed to new independent label UB1 Music, their "Clap Clap" single has gained considerable radio exposure. The single features the rapper Jahaziel who has worked with many of the top names in urban music like Lemar, Stacie Orrico and Alex Cartana.
I kicked off by asking Daniel whether he thought the Biritsh gospel scene was a bit restrictive. "A lot of groups do seem to be just interested in focusing on the Church alone, ministering in churches and saturating the small UK gospel industry, almost like staying in a comfort zone. That kind of mentality is restrictive because in effect up-and-coming groups will keep their message within the gospel fraternity and not out in the world where it's really needed."
Clearly, with "Clap Clap" already attracting the attention of magazines like Touch and Blues & Soul and radio stations like BBC 1Xtra (where it was named Record Of The Week) and Choice FM, Four Kornerz have more than one eye on the mainstream. First though comes another single, as Deji explained, "The album is currently in the making and is a learning experience! However before the album is released, we will have another single out called 'Dance'. Depending on the response of that song, then we will focus on a possible late 2004 launch. We have set out our targets together with our record label UB1 Music and we have some interesting producers on board who will be revealed very soon."
I asked Vidal to name the group's major musical influences. "They vary from each member but as a collective we all love the Philadelphia neo-soul movement. Artists like Jill Scott, The Roots, Floetry and the gospel greats like Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond and Tonex; and general soul heads like Maxwell and Lauren Hill. All these guys are an inspiration to us. But ultimately, our influence is God-driven and whatever styles we produce have to be okey'd by him!"
IDMC and Four Kornerz may have been missed by Britain's Christian record companies but at least the release by Kingsway Music of the Mark Beswick & The Power Praise Worship Band's 'The King Is Coming' shows that the UK companies are at last realising that some of the most exciting and creative worship music is emanating from the black majority churches. With the release of 'Praise Comes First' by Pastor David Daniel And The People's Christian Fellowship Choir, Kingsway Music have made a giant step forward in broadening consumer expectation as to what constitutes a "praise and worship" album.
Like thousands of others in gospel music, David Daniel cut his teeth in his church's youth choir. He remembered, "In our church it didn't start off as a mainstream Pentecostal church, it was a Brethren church and it is now an evangelical church and so hymns were our heritage, together with the Word of God. I kind of started off singing with the choir as we tried to do a bit of gospel music. As time went by I was playing the trumpet, I joined a group, a gospel jazz funk group when I was in my teens called Clarity."
Clarity were years ahead of their time. In the '80s, together with Paradise, they pioneered fusing the rhythms of funk to gospel music. After a spell with Clarity, David met some of the members of the Latter Rain Outpouring Choir which, under the leadership of Rev Bazil Meade, was the forerunner of the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC). Recalled David, "I was there in the very first rehearsals. It was something on the TV, I think, the programme was called Black On Black and there was a Christmas special that was being put together. I was in the group for that and after which they formed the LCGC. I stayed with them up until about 1987/89, when I got married. I think I had left by the time I got married and I started to do some solo stuff."
Along with arranger producer Steve Thompson, David was one of the first musicians out of Britain's black church to work with white worship leaders. "I did a lot of stuff with people like Graham Kendrick. I used to tour with Graham and then I did some stuff with Gloria Gaynor and a few other people like that. I was doing stuff like backing singing and sessions for a while, but what I was actually doing behind the scenes was preparing myself for the pastoral role that I am in right now, so I took a few years out and in 1993 went to the London Bible College."
The People's Christian Fellowship Choir contains members who have been singing with David since he was eight! "It's gone through different changes. The name has changed and the leadership has changed but it's basically our church choir. So there are some singers in this choir right now who I have known since I was a child. I would say that this present choir has probably been going since 1991. My wife Donna Daniel took over the leadership of the choir and we kind of went down this particular direction where it was not just a youth choir any longer because we were all kinda getting older! So we dropped the "youth" title and we became the PCF Choir. It's maybe since 1991 we have been in this particular form. We did an EP at ICC in Eastbourne called Change. It came out in 1993. It was a very good learning experience. I learnt a lot about the importance of having the best singers with mics louder than everyone else! My sister Sharon and myself, we had the choir at that particular time and we wrote some songs and had it produced."
David is proud of his choir's album. "When I listened to the play-back, it sounded fantastic! Believe me, it brought a tear to my eye! It was that good! I realised when I listened to the actual dry recording re-run afterwards, I thought - this choir really can sing! What we planned to do was to get brand new material. I called all my friends who could write songs, all of the people in the ministry who had songs out there and I was asking people for songs, and they were slow in coming forward. I only had a few mini discs and tapes to choose from. I realised everyone was very busy etc, etc and maybe people thought I was just asking for songs, that I was not really that serious. But I was serious. Then as time went by, little ideas came to me and I started to write a few songs and I just presented them to the choir and said let's just see how this goes, let's just sing this, and they were really loving it. Everyone liked it and so we started to lean towards writing more of the songs for the recording. So I initially tried to get other people to write for us, but wrote maybe five or six of the songs. We had Ruth Lynch who is in our choir, she wrote a couple of songs as well, Sheila Robinson and Erika wrote one and then we got a song from Graham Kendrick."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.