Harlem's other globetrotters are here

By Scott Kara

There's not much singing on the tour bus of the Harlem Gospel Choir. The time they spend on the coach is for sleeping.

They're like a rock band - less the excess - tramping from city to city. They do a show, pack up, move on, wake, and sing again, all the while spreading their message of "bringing people and nations together".

"We do big jumps you know - 500-mile jumps from one [gig] to another and every night you're doing it," says choir founder and director Allen Bailey. "So there ain't no chance to sing other than at the concerts," he laughs.

The choir is made up of singers and musicians from various black churches in the Harlem community. They play a string of New Zealand shows starting at the Town Hall in Auckland tomorrow night.

As you would expect, because the choir recruits people from a community in the middle of New York, several members have notorious backgrounds.

"There's ex-drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. You name it, they're there," says Bailey. "But you see, we're not judgmental, you know. Jesus Christ's friend, Mary Magdalene, was a prostitute, so he wasn't judgmental. So it's not what you do, and where you came from, it's what you're gonna do."

The choir has auditions every Saturday and hundreds of audition tapes are received throughout the year.

Bailey has witnessed some incredible voices over the years but it's not that quality he looks for first.

"They have to be willing to give something back," he says. "So they have to do a certain amount of charity work because the Harlem Gospel Choir is, first and foremost, a children's charity. We work with children's charities all over the world to raise funds for them.

"What we do affects the lives of people and that's why the people we hire have to keep in mind that you can't be too selfish."

Plus, choir members have to be prepared to travel since they cover more than 350,000km a year, and often there are three or four choirs travelling the world at one time.

Bailey formed the choir in 1986 because of the demand from audiences overseas to see mass choirs singing gospel music. This demand was created as a result of the ritual called Harlem Spiritual, where all the black churches open their doors to visitors from around the world every Sunday.

"But we also wanted to bring about a better understanding of the African and American community and culture as it relates to the black church."

Irish rockers U2 put the Harlem Gospel Choir on the international map when they recruited the choir to sing on the song, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, from the 1987 album The Joshua Tree.

But, says Bailey, remember, the black church has been around for 200 years. And he says even though Harlem is associated mostly with hip-hop nowadays, many of the big hip-hop and R&B stars of today had their beginnings in the black church.

"Puff Daddy, Run DMC and all those big hip-hop stars. And now they are going back to the church and doing gospel albums."

And it's not just hip-hop stars, either. "Elvis was a great gospel singer. And he had his beginnings in the church and he used to come to the black church in Harlem all the time."

Harlem has undergone a renaissance lately and is far different from when Bailey grew up there and he could go and see Sammy Davis jnr in concert for $4 at the Apollo Theatre.

"I can't even afford to live in Harlem any more," he laughs. "I have to live downtown now. They have Disney, Warner Bros, CNN up there now; all the major corporations so it's extremely expensive in Harlem. We had a few Kiwis who moved in there and bought a few condominiums up there and I said to myself, 'There goes the neighbourhood'." He chuckles.

According to Bailey, the church, and gospel music are two of the most important constants not only in the Harlem community but in the black community as a whole.

"Church was always that stable institution in the black community because it serves us seven days a week. Some churches we're travelling to in Europe, they're only open on Sundays from 11am to 1pm. That's kind of odd for us because, how can you close a church for six days of the week?" He laughs.

"With our church, being open seven days means it not only serves our spiritual needs on Sundays, but Monday, Tuesday ... we have senior-citizen programmes, health-care programmes, educational programmes, day-care centres. So we have lots going on."

Predictably, when you talk to Bailey the words God and Jesus Christ come up very little. It's the music and the message he is pushing because he believes gospel music is universal.

"Gospel music is about people who have suffered. Everybody can relate to it because, one time or another, everyone has had some kind of problem in their life. Especially considering what's going on in the world today. People want to be uplifted.

"During our concerts we try to emulate what happens on a Sunday afternoon in the black church, so you can get a little bit of it," he says.

But Bailey is also hoping to be entertained himself while in New Zealand by some of those "Maori singers".

Last time the choir was in New Zealand a group had them in tears.

"Oh my God, I hope we run into them again this year. They invited us out for dinner and they sang and we melted."

* Harlem Gospel Choir on tour: Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall, October 29; Civic Theatre, Rotorua, October 30; Municipal Theatre, Napier, November 1; Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, November 2; St James Theatre, Wellington, November 3 & 4

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