Manchester's dance pioneers The WORLDWIDE MESSAGE TRIBE are experiencing ever increasing waves of recognition. Yet their vision and heart for grassroots ministry remains, as Karl Allison found when he went to talk to them.
The Worldwide Message Tribe are quite probably the most happening thing in Britain's current Christian music scene. They make brilliant albums and they see young people saved on a weekly basis. Isn't that what it's all about?
When I first met the Tribe about 18 months ago, they told me that all they were really interested in was reaching the school kids of Manchester. Since then, they've seen their album released Stateside by Scott Blackwell and this year play mainstage Greenbelt and Crossfire. Then there's the increasing reputation of Tribesman Zarc Porter as a producer and the imminent N-Soul release of their new 'Dance Planet' album. I asked Zarc, Mark and Andy if the vision had changed.
"We're carrying on with the Manchester schools - that is absolutely our main thing," stated Mark. "The other things we're doing are really there to support the schools work."
Alliance Music's UK distribution of the new album should finally bring the Tribe's music to the wider audience it so richly deserves and yet this most focussed of bands deny that this has ever been a part of their thinking. Andy explained: "We weren't even going to attempt to promote our first album. We released it for the Manchester schools because that's what God told us to do. Cross Rhythms got a copy almost by default and did a rave review and everything snowballed from that. There are just so many things happening for us at the moment. There's such a buzz and we feel that the Holy Spirit is creating it. We're just keeping our heads down and doing what we feel God has called us to do. God can do all the promotional work."
Mark: "I think we've got this in-built fear that if we let it go to our heads and do our own thing, it will all go wrong. As long as we're doing what God's told us to do then God will bless the work and the band. But if we start being heroes then I think it will all just collapse."
Zarc: "All this success has been a surprise to us because from a marketing man's point of view, we're a nightmare!"
Andy: "In the last two years we've only done one gig outside of Manchester and that was the Cross Rhythms Festival. In a way, it's been a strange piece of publicity that we've done. The fact that we've turned down all these gigs - people all over Britain have wanted to book us and we've said no - it's built up a weird kind of credibility. People think, 'Oh they must be good 'cos they won't do our gig.' It's inverted marketing! This year we're doing Greenbelt and Crossfire, but we're going to have display stands there explaining the whole vision of this thing. The bigger it gets, the more we want to keep this focus that there are a million young people in our patch and that's a lifetime's work."
Every week of every term, you'll find the Tribe in a school. Lessons, assemblies and a big Friday night gig are worked week in and week out to bring the gospel to Manchester's pagan youth. For Mark and Andy, this is now full time work. Zarc emerges from the studio for the Friday gig, accompanied by a small army of technicians, dancers and singers. Two vocalists are to the fore; Elaine Hanley, who's been with the band for some time, and the more recently arrived Sani.
"We've been looking for a singer for two years," explained Andy. "Sani is from Swaziland and she's red hot. And really on fire for God. She's been working with Hugh Masekela for the last couple of years and has done loads of top session singing. She was just about to sign a deal with Masekela when she received a phenomenal prophecy and a clear call to come to Britain. It's quite a reverse - they're now sending missionaries to us! Within a month of this call she'd jacked in the recording career in Africa and came over here." Sani's vocals can be heard on the new 'Dance Planet' tracks and also on the Rhythm Saints album that Zarc recently made for N-Soul with Steve Nixon.
It seems incredible that the Tribe are able to work in the schools in the way they have. Aren't there a lot of difficulties involved in presenting the gospel clearly in the current educational environment? Mark: "It's been amazing how little opposition there has been. God has got us into these schools."
Andy: "I can't believe that the church isn't doing more because the
doors to the schools are wide open and you just couldn't have a more
strategic way of reaching non-Christians. Obviously you've got to do
it right. The last half hour of every lesson is taken up by questions,
so we can't be accused of proselytising. But their questions give you
a legitimate reason to answer. We have to say, 'Look, I've got to warn
you that we're biased, this has worked for me for 15 years.' We just
want to get God on the agenda. Once people are thinking about Jesus,
things start to happen. We see on average 30 kids a week who want to
make commitments, and we have seen up to 70. So we've probably seen
about 1,500 kids make commitments in the schools. We get asked back on
the basis that the kids enjoyed it so much. And because the atmosphere
changes and the fighting stops. We've had letters from kids
saying that there was an incredible atmosphere of love about the school, because talking about Jesus has a good effect on people, even the ones who aren't saved. I see education as being about choice. The problem is that the kids are not getting the opportunity to choose Jesus. We are just giving them that opportunity."
Amidst such activity, it seems all the more remarkable that the Tribe are able to make such quality music for the rest of us to listen to. This is due in no small measure to the increasingly studio-bound existence of Zarc, whose Perfect Music studio is currently booked up until early 1995! The studio is temporarily located in part of their church's vicarage. Zarc explained: "The studio moved from my flat because I got married about six months ago and there wasn't enough room for Miriam and the gear. Something had to go and it turned out to be the gear!"
Despite such considerations, the studio will have been used for six Christian albums by the end of this year and also for a considerable amount of secular session work. "At the moment it's about 50/50," claimed Zarc. "I'm still keen to do secular stuff because it is such a good musical influence. If all you do is Christian stuff, you'll eventually get quite stale. I did one novelty project which was a cover of "Jimmy Mack" and the guy went to London with it the day after we mixed it and got offers from three major record companies. So it's good to be working with people who are at the front of things because we can then draw influences musically into the Message stuff and try to keep things on the ball."
The most glaring example of this policy working out must be the Tribe's own brand new 'Dance Planet' album. It's an album that's been released in two parts. Many CR readers may already own the privately distributed 'Dance Planet Part 1' cassette which the band put out about six months ago. Now they've added another six tracks and are hoping the whole package gets its N-Soul CD release in time for Greenbelt.
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