• By Jubilation Gospel Choir

It’s the season of Jubilation

Gospel choir’s performances a city tradition for Christmas

It’s just the same old thing for the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir this year: “traditional gospel, rock’n’roll, shoot-’em-up music,” in the words of Trevor Payne, the choir’s founding director.

Oh, yes, and packed houses that turn out every year for concerts that have become as much a Christmas tradition in Montreal as the Ogilvy’s window display and the Paul Reid special on the radio.

While some tickets are still available for this year’s choir concerts Dec. 6 to 9, some fanatics are already trying to book the best seats for next year, Payne said.

The secret, according to Payne: the energy of the 35-member choir and its nine instrumentalists, and a repertoire that ranges “from Africa to New Orleans to Mississippi to Germany and back.

“There are many choirs out there that are technically better,” Payne said, “but what might be unique about us is the variety of stuff we do.” The choir’s new disc, Jubilation VIl – A Cappella Plus reflects some of that variety, as well as material that gently pushes boundaries.

Sounds of Marketplace
For example, one song, Kwa Unyenyekevu, is almost an aural movie: marketplace sounds give way to a haunting phrase played on the kora, a banjo-like instrument that sounds like a harp.

“When I was doing research for the last album, I was taken to flea markets in various areas of South Africa,” Payne said. “You’d see 10, 15, 20 blocks filled with artists that make instruments. They try to sell them by playing them.”

The choir drifts in over the kora, singing a completely different melody. “In that market area, there might be a small African church, with a choir on the steps. They might be trying to raise money, or promote a concert,” Payne said. “Their sound is part of the overall hustle and bustle, mixed in with the instruments, kids, cars and chickens.”

Then the kora takes over from the singers. “In that track, the crowd’s attention shifts from the kora to the choir, then back again because the instrument is more familiar to them.”

The album also has its share of uptempo spirituals like Ain-a That Good News, Just a Little (Talk) With Jesus and I’m Gonna Sing. Musical shading is used sparingly, but harpsichord, piano, English horn, bassoon and even a New Orleans street band colour the songs.

To celebrate the group’s 20th anniversary next year, Payne said he would like to bring back some of the artists who have worked with the choir in the past. “Ranee Lee is ready to roll, and maybe if I start hinting now, I can coax Oliver Jones out of retirement.”

A new project with the chamber orchestra I Musici de Montréal is also being hammered out. In fact, Payne said he would like to make more time for symphonic conducting, a subject in which he majored at McGill University. “It’s a part of my soul that never really got fed, so I’m tugged in that area, too.”

Pure gospel
Although Payne led the Montreal rock’n’roll band Triangle in the 1960s, he clearly doesn’t like to dilute his gospel sounds. He dismisses contemporary gospel music, for example, as “religious hip-hop. It could be Dr. Dre with religious text. It has none of those Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Aretha Franklin-type chords.”

Although the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir sings spirituals, Payne said he’s no evangelist, even though he has always kept his faith. “There are people, including other gospel directors, who think I should hand out bibles or lead people in prayer, but I never did that. Never will.

“I can tell you this, though: being black, from a typical black family, black community, born in Barbados, with a grandmother who was a 24-hour-a-day Christian, with several Baptist ministers in my family, it would be impossible for me not to relate to what I do from a spiritual angle.

“Still, I’m careful about how I present the music. I do not want to offend Christians or non-Christians. Maybe that’s why skinheads come to our shows, and some of our most avid fans are from the Jewish community.”

In the end, Payne concluded, his job as choir leader comes down to the music. “If what the audience feels is spiritual when they hear Goin’ Up Yonder or Changed, that’s good enough for me.”