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Thirty years ago the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir branched out of Oakland’s Jazz Camp. OIGC performed and even traveled the world, and eventually, spawned two similarly minded choirs, the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir and the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir. The youth choir is for youth, and the community choir is a no-audition choir, meaning anyone can join if they like to and want to sing gospel music and can rehearse once a month.
Saturday was their third annual performance at First Congregational Chuch in Oakland. They were joined by some special guests: Ja Ronn & F.L.O.W., Tamara Edwards, and preacher Reginald Finley. The concert was called Music for Peace, and the words kept coming up.
Save for a Catholic upbringing, I’m not particularly religious. Because of this, I was worried I wasn’t the person to write about this performance. And although religion pulsed pretty clearly through the performance’s veins (after all, it was a gospel concert at First Congregational Church of Oakland), I also felt like much of the delivery, much of the emotional profile of the night, was direct enough to carry explicit meaning in or out of a religious setting. Songs about faith can be songs about perseverance, too. If the opening prayer didn’t speak to you as prayer, it’s possible it spoke to you as the words from someone standing and speaking candidly to an audience about how hurt things are, and what she wants the world to have and how to have it.
There was a moment of silence for the past few weeks of loss. There was a moment halfway through the performance when Terrance Kelly, OICC Director, asked the audience to greet one another and wish each other peace, which we did until music started again. He shared a story of his own grieving process, and how a friend of his helped him through the tragedies from this month. In a lot of ways, the night was very church-like: At one point they passed baskets around for donations, everyone stuck around afterward and chatted, and people bought cupcakes from the bake sale supporting the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir.
But in other ways, it felt like a concert. Ja Ronn & F.L.O.W. performed first. The eight-piece choir led by Ja Ronn sang two songs, but before starting the second song, they asked Kelly which of two songs they should sing, leaving it up to him (Kelly is Ja Ronn’s uncle). He picked “There Remaineth a Rest,” which I’m grateful for. The song was pretty leveling. It was sung a cappella, so it was the first time of the night that was just voices. It’s a beautiful song: Lots of subtle blending and bending voices, and dynamic in volume: Loud one moment and silent the next, except for the sound of their voices dissolving into the church walls. This song was the first part of the night that audience members started getting swept away. The song was so sharp with emotion it made people react; pulled words out of their mouths. “Yes.” “There you go.” “That’s it.” “Yeah.” “Hallelujah!”
The Oakland Interfaith Community Choir followed, but it should be noted that the band — a drummer, bassist, and two people on keys — played music to speakers’ speaking, like Director Terrance Kelly’s inter-song monologue or Patrick Landeza’s emcee-ing. So, for example, when Leah Martens opened with a half-spoken, half-spoken-word prayer, it was delivered with the swell of an organ, a keyboard, drums, and a bass. She prayed to a soundtrack of sorts, and it was a profound thing, I thought, to accompany one with the other. The prayer and the song became one emotional project.
This was kind of a theme for the night: one word or concept either supporting or equivocated with another word or concept. Song and prayer. Song as prayer. Prayer and Gospel. Singing as speaking. Love and God. Connections not only drawn but harmonized, in literal and figurative senses. Think about the choir themselves, pretty interfaith – Christian, Jewish, agnostic, Unitarian, Baseball (in the words of Kelly), the list goes on – yet they’re all singing, harmonizing, and collaborating on songs about faith, which is why I felt the songs were as about faith as they could be. There is a difference between a single-denomination choir singing about faith and an interfaith choir singing about faith, and I think the difference is that for the latter it’s not only harmonized voice, but also harmonized religion; harmonized ways.
The OICC sang seven songs. There were 90 singers. The youngest singer looked 16 or so; the eldest was 93. They started with a spiritual. Kelly explained, “There’s no music from America other than that of indigenous peoples that didn’t come from the Negro spiritual.” He sang a line from a country song, a new twang in his voice: “Yeah, that comes from the Negro spiritual, too.” He said this with a pride in his voice, and he said it with clarity.
Like the word peace, the word love came up again and again throughout the performance. It was used in a vague, blaringly unspecific way — and purposely so, because if love can mean more than one thing, and at the very least not just one thing, it’ll have more space, more use and more stage time in their and our performances.
Soloist Tamara Edwards joined OIGC for one of the songs, “Speak.” During part of the song the choir's voices raised, but not at the same time: The sections sort of ping-ponged upward, Edwards’ voice doing the same thing. It’s hard to describe, but it was an almost overwhelmingly organized and loud. It’s like when someone is yelling to you. Not angry, just excited, and you pick up on the excitement and know that you need to quickly adjust in some way to the change in energy, because it’s impossible to ignore. Some of the singers shook. I think a couple of them teared up. At some of the more intense moments the voices made me feel sort of bashful (weird, no?); not necessarily intimidated but well aware of and silenced by the energy directed at me. Lady next to me standing, clapping. Guy in front of us standing, head bowed and hand up like an antennae toward the singers, receiving something.
After hearing the performance, after being audience with the audience, I think that everyone stood in the presence of the voices the exact way it had them stand, and this was the thing to share in the tall, concrete church.