American singer DANIEL DECKER has become a hero in Armenia with a stunning musical evocation of the Armenian Genocide. Tony Cummings met up with Daniel.
How a classically trained, Puerto Rican origin New Yorker became a national hero in Armenia is one of those Fact Stranger Than Fiction stories that only God could have brought together. News reports, earlier this year, of inspirational gospel singer Daniel Decker performing to a standing ovation at a nationally televised concert in Armenia was the culmination of a set of circumstances so removed from the usual marketing and publicity mechanisms of most US CCM that the phrase "God's leading" takes on a whole new dimension. In the summer Daniel made a surprise visit to the UK and found time to visit me at Cross Rhythms and recount his extraordinary story.
Born in Puerto Rico, Daniel moved to New York while still a baby. Recounted Daniel, "I was raised by my mother, my parents divorced when I was a child. My mother being a Christian raised me in a Christian home and so I had a very strong Christian emphasis in my upbringing, which really helped me along as I grew. We went to evangelical churches of various denominations. We moved around quite a bit so we generally tended to attend churches which were close to our home - it might be a Baptist church or Church Of The Nazarene or an independent church or a Christian Missionary Alliance Church. I grew up in some small towns in up-state New York. Seneca Falls probably doesn't mean too much to listeners in other countries, but now my home is in the city of Syracuse, New York. I accepted the Lord at a very early age and I had very strong influence, not only from my mother, but from my Grandfather who was a pastor in Puerto Rico for over 50 years. He was a tremendous influence on my life - we even shared the same birthday, so we had a particularly close bond even amidst the thousands of miles of distance. As I grew I always felt Christ's presence in my life and by the time I got to college, that's when I really made the decision to use my talents for his Kingdom."
It was at college that Daniel became interested in singing. "I didn't really get involved in singing until I was a senior in high school. Some of the teachers actually tried to discourage me, but the stubborn person that I am, I wanted to do it even more! So I began singing and practising and I auditioned, kind of spur of the moment, at a music school to see if I could get in - and I did! That began my musical journey. I started studying singing and my first aspiration was to be an opera singer, that's where I was headed. Well, let me re-trace that. Actually, before that I was very interested in jazz and I wanted to be a jazz singer, and then I got to college and really took a liking to classical music, and so I started training for opera. It was round about my third year of college when I really felt the Lord grab hold of me and say, 'This is not what I have planned for you, I want you to use your talents for my sake, for my Kingdom.' So I began re-directing my attentions in music towards Christian music - again, much to the dismay of my teachers who were grooming me for a world of opera in Europe somewhere. I said, 'No, that's not what I'm going to do anymore. I'm headed towards Christian music.' And so I started focusing my attentions in that direction."
Influenced by the Christian music pioneers like Keith Green, 2nd Chapter Of Acts and Michael Card, Daniel began performing concerts. A concert in upstate New York took an unexpected turn. "After the concert the senior pastor said, 'How would you like to be our minister of music?' And of course I laughed at him because I thought he was kidding, 'cos he was kind of a jokester. We didn't talk about it for a while, but a couple of months later he called me up. He said, 'We'd like you to do another concert at our church' and I thought, 'This is strange, two months after my first concert he's inviting me for another.' So I did another concert and afterwards he said, 'How would you like to be our minister of music,' and then he said, 'I'm not kidding!' So we began talking and I interviewed with the board and I ended up being the minister of music in the church. About a year into my service there, the senior pastor resigned. From that point on I became a pastor, taking the pulpit that was vacated. Each step on the way in my life I've found that the Lord has put me in situations that have prepared me for the next step."
As it turned out, the next step was itinerant music ministry. Continued Daniel, "I really felt the call that had been with me for many years, to be in direct music ministry. I'd always seen myself as a song evangelist or a 'musical ambassador' as I call myself today, so I really began to focus more on composition, writing my own material and recording - working on my first CD which was in 2001. That was called 'Pure In Heart'. It was really a stretch for me, I'd never done anything like that before and it had always been a dream of mine, to record. Fortunately from my days in the record company I'd met a few musicians and I asked John Catchings, who was the cellist with Michael Card to play on it, and he agreed and played on seven out of 10 tracks. Picture this instrumentation - I had cello, harp, mandolin, guitar, piano - it had kind of an Appalachian, New England kind of sound to it. I think it's held up quite well. That was a beginning for me."
Daniel met a young lady from Armenia - the country of three and half million people and the smallest former republic of the Soviet Union. He fell in love with the girl, Armine, and a trip to Armenia was arranged to spend time with his future bride. Daniel remembered that first trip. "I had given Armine a copy of my first CD 'Pure In Heart'. Well, she played it for her sister, her sister went to school the next day and told one of her friends about it, that friend told her sister about it - we got a call the next day and they said, 'Would you like to sing on television?' I said, 'I'd love to!' Well, that friend's sister was the host of a TV show that aired nationally in Armenia, so the next thing I know I'm singing songs about Jesus in a former communist republic of the Soviet Union for an entire hour as they translated my words into the Armenian language. When that happened I had just a glimpse of what God was unfolding in my life. The second time I went to Armenia was to get married. A couple of days after our marriage we went shopping in this open air market and I heard this music that was being played in the distance. I kid you not, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my life and I raced to where they were playing that music and I bought the CD. I took it back and listened to it and I said to my bride, 'I am going to write words to this melody,' because it was just an instrumental/orchestral piece. So we called the TV station where I had sung on my first visit to Armenia hoping that they had heard of this composer called Ara Georgian. He was a national celebrity in Armenia."
It turned out that the famed composer had been a guest on the very TV programme Daniel had appeared on. Daniel was given Ara's phone number and they met in an open air café. With some nervousness Daniel asked whether he could take Ara's composition and put words to it. Daniel remembered, "Before he gave I had to explain, 'I only sing Christian music and I intend to make this a Christian song,' thinking full well he'd probably say 'Forget it!' Instead, he said yes. He told me that he's a believer too! I started working on these lyrics and I rang him up a couple of months later and sang for him what turned into verse two of what had become 'Noah's Prayer'. The next words that came out of his mouth were 'Dear Dan,' in Armenian, "you must come back to Armenia and sing this at my concert.' So for my third trip to Armenia I presented this new composition at his concert."
Based on the story of Noah on the Ark to Mount Ararat, "Noah's Prayer" is a haunting fusion of Eastern European melody and powerful biblical lyric. The concert with Ara Georgian turned out to be an unforgettable experience for Daniel. "What I didn't realise, or was prepared for at the time, was this concert was sponsored by the Armenian government. The military was there, there were Ambassadors in the audience from countries around the world, it was broadcast live on national television to over 30 countries, the President of Armenia was there sitting in the front row. It was an outdoor concert and right behind us as I'm singing about Noah is Mount Ararat where the Ark rests! After the concert I thought, 'I will remember this for the rest of my life and nothing could ever equal this.' Well, I couldn't have been more wrong, because the people of Armenia embraced this song completely and they began playing the clip of that song on television again and again. Even when I returned to Armenia two years later they were still playing it on television and people were approaching me on the street to shake my hand and to talk about the song and everything."
Daniel's musical collaboration with Ara Georgian took another turn. "The day after the concert I said to my wife, 'I really feel this call to write another song with this man,' and I was listening to various melodies of Ara's. He had written this beautiful melody that was called 'Adana'. I had no idea what the word meant or anything, I felt that had to be the next song. I'd been getting to know Armenian history and I'd learned about this very tragic event called the Armenian Genocide. It took place during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, during World War One when the Ottoman Turks decided to exterminate the Armenian Christians who were in their territory. In a very short period of time they killed one and a half million Armenian Christians, because of their Christianity. I thought this was a story that needed to be told. It's referred to today as the forgotten genocide, most people have never heard about it, especially in America - it's virtually unknown. In fact, it was so horrific and so powerful in history that when Hitler was hatching his schemes to exterminate the Jews he was quoted by one of his confidantes saying something to the effect, 'Nobody remembers the Armenian Genocide, nobody did anything to stop it - who's going to stop us?' So I approached Ara the next day and as I was about to tell him about my idea this is what he said: 'Dear Dan, (in Armenian) we must do another song together and please choose "Adana".' And then he said, 'Please write about the genocide.' Independently we had exactly the same melody with the same concept behind it and I knew this had to be done. So for the next year I began working on these lyrics. I cried over these lyrics, because after all how can you tell such a story and have it be something that people can bear to listen to? I wrote it for several reasons, one - to tell the story to non-Armenians, about the genocide. But also I wanted to write it in a way that it would be a source of healing to the Armenian people. So not only did I tell the story of the genocide but there are two spoken sections in the song where first I give the most 'in your face' bold proclamation of the Gospel you can ever imagine. In the second part of the narration I describe how God has not forgotten about those Armenian Christians who were martyred for their faith. That God has wrapped his arms around them and they will be worshipping around the throne for ever and ever, and that God has not forgotten about the Armenian people."
In April 2005 Daniel performed "Adana" at the Opera And Ballet Academic Theatre in Armenia's capital Yerevan. The concert was to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the 1915 Genocide. In the packed audience were Armenian government officials and other dignitaries. "Before I stepped onto the stage I was backstage praying, 'Lord if there's one time in my life when I sense the power of your Holy Spirit working through me, more than any other time in my life, let it be right now.' Because I knew that the moment I stepped onto that stage I would be singing to people who lost family in the genocide, and the people that I'm describing in this song are their relatives. The concert was on every Armenian TV station simultaneously - live. I got on the stage and from the very first note of that song I started crying - to the very last. I did a couple of other songs then I left the stage, and for a moment I'll be honest I kind of pouted off stage thinking, 'How could I get so emotionally involved in the song that I start crying and I get all choked up?' and it's hard to sing when you're becoming overcome with emotion. Then I realised something - that was the Holy Spirit working, and I remembered looking out into the audience as I was singing and everybody else was crying too. Even the politicians were crying. That evening we went to the genocide memorial where they have the eternal flame, hundreds of thousands of people were there and I sang that song - not only myself but we had the song translated into 17 languages and we had singers from around the world singing lines from the song in their own languages gathering around the eternal flame. It has been absolutely remarkable what God has been doing through this song. Since then I've had opportunities to sing to Armenian populations in New York City and Los Angeles. I cannot describe to you just how magnificent it is to be able to see God working in a situation. And having said that, I'm just an ordinary guy who just happened to be in one particular place in history and God said, 'I have something for you to do.' It's still continuing. I'm speechless..."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.