NOEL ROBINSON has played with everyone from Chaka Khan to East 17 but it's his pioneering work as a worship leader which makes him a true bridge builder. Tony Cummings reports.
With much of the Christian community and the musicians who have emerged form it still divided by colour, culture or theology, Noel Robinson is a towering presence who refuses to be boxed in by the narrow expectations and petty prejudices of the religious spirit. This softly spoken Londoner is an acclaimed guitarist who has made inroads into the mainstream working with stars like Chaka Khan, East 17 and Mica Paris yet who has a heart for ministry delighting in encouraging congregations to make the divine connection. He is an award winning performer of Afro Caribbean gospel yet he's worked with numerous white artists like Graham Kendrick and Matt Redman. And possibly most important of all he's built a bridge between black and white church cultures by demonstrating that a praise and worship leader is a relevant ministry for ALL church goers. Now with his new album 'Garment Of Praise' named by Cross Rhythms as one of the 20 Best Albums of 2006, Noel Robinson and his group Nu Image are on the threshold of yet more achievements.
On Cross Rhythms' Rimmerama programme Noel spoke about his ministry as a worship leader. "When I started to talk about praise and worship the people in the black-led churches thought I was crazy. I can name you some of the black-led churches right now who are major players, who said, 'What is this guy? We know him as a guitarist. What is he talking about, this praise and worship thing?' In a way God kind of set me up with that. People would say, 'Come to our church and tell us what this praise and worship is about.' So I ended up going to peoples' churches and doing praise and worship sets, if you want to call it that. Most of the white Christian community don't see black gospel choirs as the real worship thing because they judge it by America. They kind of see you as, 'Well, we can have a happy, clappy time.' Nobody takes your ministry seriously. So I began talking to black churches about praise and worship and looking at it from a biblical point of view. All I said to a lot of the black churches is that you are basically doing it, but you haven't called it praise and worship. You don't call somebody who leads your songs a worship leader, you call them a song leader, which is the same kind of terminology but Christians were going down the road of worship leader. I was one of the first black musicians to actually say, 'I am a worship leader.'"
Noel had grown up enveloped in black church culture. Born in Harlesden, north west London in 1962 he played regularly at his local Pentecostal church and became a Christian in his teens. It was in the '80s that a "chance" meeting with Les Moir, an accomplished bass player and record producer who today runs Kingsway's Survivor and OTR record labels was crucial in a change of direction for Noel. Remembered Noel, "I met Les when I was playing for Tramaine Hawkins. She flew out a band, I don't know what happened to her guitarist. He just couldn't make it and the next thing I got a call and I was playing for her. I met Les there and I was thinking, 'He is the only white face in a black crowd.'"
As it turned out Noel's meeting with Les Moir was to have a profound effect on the future direction of the brilliant young guitarist. Like other singers and instrumentalists who'd grown up in the black church, Noel was being drawn to the rich pickings of mainstream R&B. But Noel, a deeply spiritual man, wasn't comfortable with the fast lane excess that often was part and parcel of the R&B and pop world. Then God intervened in Noel's music career. "I had just got a gig which I thought was going to be my biggest gig. I was going to go on a European tour with Lionel Ritchie, so it was like, yeah, this is the one! Then God said no. Everything that I tried to do to make it work, completely, just totally missed the grain. Then within two weeks I was playing for Graham Kendrick."
By the '80s Kendrick was the biggest selling Christian recording artist in Britain with such worship classics as "The Servant King" and "Jesus Stand Among Us" being sung in seemingly every church in Britain. The white churches that is. Remembered Noel, "I had never heard of Graham Kendrick before. It was like I was going in one direction and God saying, 'Hold on a second.' Within two weeks I was playing for Graham Kendrick. I was standing there going, 'Who is this guy?' I'd never heard of him, I didn't know his music. I went to rehearsals and then played what I thought was an OK gig. That was my first kind of flurry in what you could call the white Christian world."
Noel's subsequent tours with Kendrick and appearances at events like Spring Harvest were a veritable eye opener for Noel. "I would go to America and I would see lots of white Christians but in the UK I just didn't think there were any white Christians! That's how shallow or narrow I was! So you can imagine I got a real rude awakening! You know I'm standing on these stages where there are two thousand people a night and I look into the audience and there's no black people! The only other black person I see is Steve Thompson (the keyboard player in Kendrick's band) and I'm thinking, 'What am I doing here?'"
Moving into the world of white evangelicalism had a great effect on Noel as did his experiences with Britain's foremost worship leader and songwriter. And gradually, as Graham Kendrick came under the influence of Thompson and Robinson some of Kendrick's songs even took on a bit of a black gospel musical colouring. Remembered Noel, "Graham's songs started to cross over into the black-led church. They started to sing his songs because they were all of a sudden palatable. Black churches couldn't relate to that acoustic guitar thing. But all of a sudden his songs are palatable and people could see and hear it and go, 'Wow! We could do this in our own church.' So all of a sudden there was 'Shine Jesus Shine' appearing in the black churches and consequently, a lot of other songs. I helped Graham bring some of them in you know, added a few chords here and there. It was that whole thing. I don't think Graham was purposefully trying to be black, because nobody tries to be anything, but your music often evolves into a place that you are at. I think that was the kind of culmination of me coming on board."
Noel's unique experience of the mainstream R&B scene, the church world of black Pentecostalism and the white charismatic/evangelical scene put Noel in the perfect place to record albums that challenged the unbiblical divisions erected by some of the more religiously minded. His albums 'Oh Taste And See' (1996) on his own Jubal label and 'Worthy In This Place' (2001) on Kingsway Music were truly groundbreaking. Now 'Garment Of Praise' on Kingsway's One Voice label demonstrates that Noel has risen to the next creative level. Eulogised Cross Rhythms' Mike Rimmer, "My own personal favourites include the faith-stirring 'You Are My Healer' complete with testimonies at the end, and the unreservedly '70s funk vibe of the title cut which must be the most rhythmic praise song recorded in the UK this year. Here are 18 songs that cross genre and church boundaries with a dynamic, unique, British sound."
One thing is certain. Noel Robinson has done more to break down the secular/sacred and white church/black church divides than just about any other artist on the whole British scene. And for that he deserves the greatest respect.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.