The New Jersey-based group evangelising in American Prisons TONY LOEFFER & The Blue Angels

Tony loeffler
Tony loeffler

A gig at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, a record deal which will see their legendary 'Rooftop Tapes' released on CD (via the UK's Spirit Music) and a return, by popular demand, to the Cross Rhythms Festival, the last 12 months have seen the ministry of New Jersey musicianaries, Tony Loeffler And The Blue Angels expand to international proportions. But still the band remains focussed on their anointed evangelistic work in American prisons. At a recent set of concerts in Texas over 1,400 inmates accepted Christ. The band's music remains a turbulent brew of Latin, jazz, RSCB and rock where riffs become glorious, joyful, polyrhythmic celebrations while their message has a Christ-centred immediacy that grips and challenges. Cross Rhythms spoke to each member of the Blue Angels.

He stands centre stage, a heavy set man with a face and stature someone has compared to Johnnie Cash. But there's nothing country about Tony Loeffler. Street-wise, rock hard yet gentle, he leads his band of musicianaries the Blue Angels with the hand of a master, leading them into sinuous rock-cum-jazz-cum-Latin grooves over which his husky, world-weary voice can emote with bluesy passion. With a dramatic Christian testimony (told in Cross Rhythms 26), Tony has spent the last 20 years singing, preaching, teaching and serving God. Tony Loeffler And The Blue Angels' legendary series 'The Rooftop Tapes', recorded live on the rooftop of a New Jersey prison, hold many vivid memories for Tony.

He recalls one of them: "We did two performances one day. The first was the men and at the end of the concert, three giant size black men were standing around me, each with tears in their eyes. I remember saying to them, 'I'd like to have you guys as body guards'. The Lord broke down every bit of pride and self dependence that day like I'd never seen before. These men were BIG! They were well built and the Macho type. But on that day, the Lord revealed to them who they really were and they were humbled by God's love for them. The second group was the women and a similar thing occurred. Women were weeping in repentance and you could hear cries, 'God please forgive me for...'. All types of sin were being confessed as the volunteers tried to comfort those who were seeking forgiveness. Most of those present were crying out to God. It was most unbelievable! Many were saved that day and we gave God the glory."

Alongside his pioneering work as an evangelist one of the other dimensions to Tony's ministry is to teach Christians about the profound value of music. "We need to see it used as the universal language to communicate the power, integrity, love, grace and mercy of God. Satan has robbed the Christians of the beauty of music to the point where many now think that because what is good was 'offered to pagans', that is now evil and of no use for the Christian. Many had reduced music to a droning monotone by removing rhythms, timbres and melodies because of their association or misuse by evil forces. This is simply wrong and a trap of the Devil because he knows how powerful music is in ministering to the spirit. It is a serious weakness in discernment that prevents Christians from understanding that the real problem and the real issue has to do with the purpose, intent and motive of our hearts. This is where evil springs forth, not from a 'beat' or a 'chord'.

"Christian music is a wonderful source of encouragement and wonder. It should be used to worship our great God and Saviour. It is an excellent way to express our true feelings to the Lord and King of the universe. Let us reclaim what Satan has taken, and show Satan the real purpose and power of music to a dying generation that has been tantalised by a fake."

Anyone who's heard them will never forget the searing Latin rhythms generated by the Blue Angels. Many of them stem from the Brazilian born David Lima, who plays congas, assorted percussion instruments and "little gadgets with different sounds". David played on 'Live With Asafe Barba' whom he describes as "the Ron Kenoly of Brazil" and has also done studio work with Joe Kurasz. Of the 100 or so gigs that David has played with the Blue Angels it was the one at Exeter Prison that was most memorable for him. "It was our first gig in a foreign land. Even through different cultures, God was moving in the hearts of the prisoners. One guy I saw full of tattoos all the way up to his face. God put it in my heart to pray for him. I started praying, though deep in my heart I thought he'd be the last one to stand and accept the Lord. After praying and waiting and hoping to see God's hand moving, it did! The guy with the tattoos was the first to take a stand. And then the rest followed."

David is looking forward to a time when the Church's hang-ups about certain musical styles will be at an end. "Then people will be able to praise God in any musical realm, be it hard rock, alternative, jazz, dance or whatever. When I started playing my conga drums a lot of churches wouldn't accept it because in Brazilian magic rituals, Spiritualism functions used congas. It was hard to be accepted in the Church. God protected me from being harmed from that lie!"

Singer and acoustic guitarist Karen has been playing with Tony Loeffler for a mind-boggling 20 years. Her conversion occurred in the mid-70s. "In 1975 I was involved with the Charismatic Renewal at the Catholic church I attended. I went to an inter-faith rally in Atlantic City, New Jersey where I asked Christ to come into my life. I was 18 years old." Shortly afterwards she began working with Tony. In 1983 she recorded an independent solo album 'You Gave Your AH' and then worked on both Tony Loeffler's solo albums and those with the Blue Angels. When asked what was her most memorable gig of the 500 she has played with the band she recalls the summer they played in Military Park, Newark, New Jersey. "There was real inner city warfare all around. The hand of God moved some very incredible circumstances around those few days. The unity of all the workers was really a blessing as they worked in the Park reaching out to the audience - black, white, young, old, mentally ill, Muslim. It was amazing."

Saxophonist Linda was born and raised in Upstate New York. She is actually a French horn major at the University of North Texas and retains close links with that university recording this year two CDs with The Wind Symphony there. Also, Linda recorded a project on French horn for Dallas Sound Lab with the Jazz Repertory Band. She has very fond memories of her time at last year's Cross Rhythms. "I was floored by the instant unity with the other Christian there. Usually when people meet for the first time, they're quiet. But when we got there everyone began talking. It was as if we had known them and been gone for a while and were coming back."

Playing hot sax over one of the most fiery rhythm sections ever does not blunt Linda's zeal for ministry. "Personally, I feel a call to minister through music because it's such a powerful tool to minister. I'd like to see more artists more in tune to minister instead of having a mind set on entertaining. There's so much potential that hasn't been tapped in regards to ministry versus entertainment. I think that's why God's blessed our band so much because of our focus on ministry."

Joe plays drums, congas, percussion, blues harp and vocals. A veteran of the music scene, Joe recorded an album 'While The World Was Eating' as far back as 1969 with a band the Pigeons who later changed their name to become Vanilla Fudge. After years of alcohol abuse Joe was rescued by the Lord. "I was led to Christ first through the 700 Club, just watching TV. Then the Lord sent a fellow musician who I had not seen for some time into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I was at and he led me to a church." The most memorable gig Joe has played with the Blue Angels was "the first prison I played in the UK."

Bass guitarist John is a New Yorker who's been with the Blue Angels four years. He says about the slog of grassroots CCM ministry, "I am amazed to be where I am. It's a humbling thing to be involved. There's good stuff and there's bad stuff. I hope to keep playing the good stuff." Cross Rhythms asked John how he became a Christian. "I grew up with a belief in God yet I didn't know Christ. I moved out to New Jersey and attended a small suburban church where I heard the plain Gospel and it began to click." John is itching to get back to the Cross Rhythms Festival. "Last year the people were genuine and receptive, the sound crew was incredible, the organisation was great and the puppies were so cute playing soccer!"

Of all the staggering musical performances that Cross Rhythms has been privileged to host down the years few can match, both for superlative quality and for its sheer unexpectedness, 1995's dazzling Showcase tent gig of the Blue Angels' guitarist Wayne Scott Farley. One story demonstrates its impact. A guitarist with a Christian band, no mean musician himself, was heard to remark after the gig, "I feel like giving up...this man is playing stuff I didn't think it was possible to play on a guitar."

On sheer ability Wayne is up there with the Dann Huffs and the Phil Keaggys. But he is also a man who after moving from Nashville back to New Jersey has freed himself of any overriding ambition, working with the Blue Angels and with Force For Good (his own band).