The 40-strong SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS are storming the charts and proving that not all the music of the mainstream is godless hedonism. The group gave an in-depth interview to Jan Willem Vink.
Their World Cup record with Daryl Hall is high in the pop charts, their current album 'Africa To America' has gained huge acclaim from public and critics alike and their concert performances are worldwide sell-outs. Sounds Of Blackness are on a roll which no one, least of all the 40-strong Minneapolis-based group, have expected. But Sounds Of Blackness are no ordinary gospel ensemble. Their repertoire takes in songs of faith new and old (with plenty of traditional spirituals) while their successful musical association with hot R&B producers Jam and Lewis, have pushed back the musical boundaries of black choir music. Sounds Of Blackness have brought house rhythms and raps into the traditional choir language of call-and-response excitement and soulful lead singers able to re-invent top lines into pyrotechnic extravaganzas of grace notes, slurs, hollers, growls and octave leaps.
On a lightning visit to Holland, I was able to speak at length to Sounds Of Blackness' director Gary Hines and the group's mighty lead singer Anne Nesby.
I understand you've been the director of the choir, since 1971.
(Gary) "We're not a choir, we're actually a musical ensemble because we do theatrical presentations and a lot of different productions. Yes, I've been director since 1971."
Can you tell something about how the musical ensemble came together?
(Gary) "In 1969 at a private college in Minnesota, called McAllister College, a gentleman named Russel Knighton, who is still a member of the group, started an organisation called the McAllister College Black Choir that was a choir of 80 voices. In 1971 the gentleman who was conducting the group transferred to another campus out of state. They were in need of a director and they approached yours truly. I was extremely honoured because even back then they were very excellent. The vision that the Lord gave me for the group was to establish it as a black music ensemble that performed the full range of African American music to tell the entire story of our people through music. And we needed a name that would fit a repertoire that included all styles of African American music. Then we came up with the name Sounds Of Blackness and we've been that way since 1971."
Have you been a member of the ensemble all the way from the beginning?
(Anne) "I've been a member of this ensemble since 1988. My sister had been a member for 10 years, along with my nephew who is a drummer for the Sounds Of Blackness. I came in to visit on a Thanksgiving Holiday. I've known Gary, the director for years; he had family ties through our churches. They were in the process of rehearsing for one of the productions, The Night Before Christmas', and I was just returning from some theatrical work off Broadway in the States and I came in the play at that time. And then Gary offered me another part in another production, 'Evolution Of Gospel', which was the music for Martin Luther King, dedicated to him on his birthday, after which I knew that this would be the best of both worlds for me because I had the singing and theatrical part of the group and the rest was history."
So can you tell something about the concept of the Sounds Of Blackness?
(Gary) "The concept and goal of the Sounds Of Blackness is to glorify God and to uplift people of all nationalities through the music of the African American experience; gospel, jazz, spirituals, blues, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, ragtime, hip-hop, worksongs, field holler, all of those styles in music, which have evolved - which is why our first album was called Evolution Of Gospel' - through the experience of African American people all the way from West Africa to the shores of North America, 400 years of experience there. All of those styles of music tell a story, and they tell us the testimony of a people through a culture, by their spirit and faith and musically throughout our history, so we try to give homage to all those styles of music with the Sounds Of Blackness."
I think many people would primarily see you as a gospel choir, although you don't agree with that. How come you decided to make that transformation from a gospel choir to one that conveyed the whole sweep of African American history?
(Gary) "Well, even from the beginning as the McAllister College Black Choir, it really was not a gospel choir at the time. You have to remember it was the late sixties and most of the McAllister College Choir's repertoire was freedom songs and black awareness songs. They did do some gospel and spirituals, but the mood of the times really had an emphasis on identity and positive images and that was reflected in their dress and the music and the plays that they put on. Also at that same college there was a group called Black Arts Midwest and they put on a number of plays that were basically culturally and historically and politically oriented. When I came on as their director, I didn't change them from being a gospel choir, because at the time they were still being very historically and culturally conscious. And what we did was just trying to broaden the scope of that by doing more different styles of black music but always very God-centred. Because we believe that the different musics that we have developed as a people are all a gift of God and all tell the story of what he's done for us."
So your music is definitely spiritual.
(Gary) "We believe, all styles of African American music are spiritual, are God centred, because that's been our legacy always from West Africa, God was never separated from any part of life or any part of music, so whether we're the blues or jazz - people like Duke Ellington, Leontine Price or Mahalia Jackson it is all about giving the glory to God."