by Brenda Vowden
The Napier Gospel Choir is shouting it from the rooftops. New Zealander Tony Backhouse will be back in Hawke's Bay to run a weekend workshop on June 25-27.
Tony is Australasia's most accomplished and well known community choir director. He is also a composer, author, singer, and musician.
"This is a great opportunity for new and experienced singers to jump in and sing out with Tony. We are delighted to have him back in New Zealand and Hawke's Bay," says Napier Gospel Choir conductor Ross Browning, who took over from Tony four years ago.
"Tony has an amazing ability to get people singing together and having fun. Within 10 minutes he has everyone singing together, and over the course of a weekend, he crafts a deep creative experience of learning songs and singing together as a group.
"It is super supportive and people can do a taster, one or any of the three days of the workshop."
Ross says learning from Tony brings workshop participants into a whole other world of song and community.
"This is what attracted me to Tony when I first met him and joined his choir."
Tony graduated from Victoria University with a BA and BMus and is described as one of the leaders in the Australasian A cappella movement.
"When he moved to Sydney he started what was to become the basis for a huge choir movement in Australasia," Ross says.
For 21 years Tony directed Sydney's Café of the Gate of Salvation. Their first CD, for which Tony provided the bulk of arrangements and songs, took three awards in the 1993 American Contemporary A Cappella Awards. His voice is also heard on the soundtrack of Jane Campion's movie Sweetie.
Tony sings with and directs the male a cappella trio The Heavenly Lights. He has researched the Black gospel tradition at Memphis State University, and spent time in the USA singing with choirs, quartets and congregations in New York, Chicago and the south. He has appeared four times at WOMADelaide, and ran workshops at WOMAD NZ in March 2005.
Tony has led nine gospel tours to the USA to participate in the African American church tradition and has run more than 2000 vocal workshops in Australia, New Zealand, London, Paris, Vancouver and Samoa since 1988, and was one of the founders of the Sydney A cappella Association.
Tony works with the African-American repertoire which focuses on spirituals, gospel songs old and new and choral and quartet styles. He also embraces South African church songs, doo-wop, R&B and pop.
"It's an oral tradition — a unique source. Gospel music is a time-honoured, exciting and vibrant genre. We sing gospel music to have fun. We are a community choir, not a church choir, everyone is welcome, and no music-reading skills are required. We take anybody who wants to sing."
Ross says gospel music comes from Africa, where they weren't allowed to sing in their own languages, or worship their own gods.
"So they developed their own songs infused with their own sense of musicality, songs that expressed their suffering as a people, their struggles, and their desire for a better life. Through their songs, we experience the release and joy that they felt from singing together."
He describes choir sessions as a joyous, non-pressured environment.
"We're there to help people find their own voice, not there to train them or for them to sing alone."
The Napier Gospel Choir is an a cappella choir, which Ross says makes it especially vibrant.
"Members depend on their fellow singers which creates part of the community bonding. We're not overwhelmed or guided by instruments, so it has both the challenge and the pleasure."
He says the weekend workshop will be a great place for beginners.
"Tony is a mega rock star but very down to earth. He turns his abilities into people having fun and gives joy to so many people through singing."
■ The Details
What: Tony Backhouse weekend workshops
When: June 25-27
Where: Asher Hall, Corner Tennyson and Dalton Streets, Napier
Info: Friday, June 25, 7pm–9pm, $30
Saturday, June 26, 11am–4pm, $95
Sunday, June 27, 10am–3pm, $95
Weekend pass: $180
For bookings, email Ruth Vincent email@example.com.
■ Napier Gospel Choir meets each Tuesday, 7pm-9pm, Napier Baptist Church hall, 36 Riverbend Rd, contact Ross on 021 810 223 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Newcomers very welcome. $10 per session.