A Superstar Visits Buenos Aires

(Photo: Liverpool Lighthouse/YouTube.com)

Gospel music has a way of making people sound like better singers than they are. I should know—I’m one of those people.

In general, one should not make too many assumptions about someone’s talent simply because that person sings professionally or publicly. When a person chooses to sing or not sing in front of other people, that choice doesn’t necessarily reflect the person’s musical ability (or lack thereof). Not all people who can sing do sing, and not all people who do sing can sing.

If you’re wondering into which category I fall, the answer is who the hell knows? Can I carry a tune? Absolutely. (*Clears throat. Puts right index finger to ear and points left index finger to sky, like Mi-mi-mi-miiiiii. Do-re-mi-fa….*) Can I hit high notes? Usually. It depends on how many Marlboros I smoked (or how much Malbec I drank) the previous night. But when you sing in a gospel choir, especially an African-American gospel choir, hitting your notes is beside the point. The music is as much about the message as it is about the melody.

Between 2008 and 2010, I did a few stints as a professional singer with a gospel choir, touring countries in Central America and South America. Even now, I can’t help giggling in my head about the word “professional.” I have sense enough to know that “paid” doesn’t necessarily mean “professional.” The only reason I had been asked to join this group was because it was led by the same generous man who directs my church choir (where I sing for free, you know, as a congregant). I overheard him talking about the tour that traveled to major cities in Latin America (Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia) and performed sold-out shows in theaters and concert halls. To me, as a freelance writer, the whole thing sounded like a paid vacation.

In reality, it was and it wasn’t.

When you’re a black person in Buenos Aires, you’re a vision. When you’re a black person who’s part of an American gospel choir in Buenos Aires, you’re a superstar. Not only do people notice you, they come up to you, smiling and firmly taking your hand into theirs. They say I love-uh the gos-pull and sometimes there are tears in the eyes letting you know their love-uh of the gos-pull is no act.

tuenight trip gospel choir penny wren
(Photo: Penny Wren)

“Music is a world within itself.”

That’s my all-time favorite Stevie Wonder lyric. I’d bet that Stevie Wonder gets a rousing reception whenever, wherever, or to whomever he sings—no matter the country, no matter the people or the language they speak. Or, at least, I hope he does because he deserves it.

When you’re a black gospel singer singing in English in Spanish-speaking countries, it doesn’t take long before you see evidence of music’s universal message.

When I signed on for the gospel tour, I never imagined that people would want my autograph. Or that they’d want to hug me and take a picture with me—without even knowing who I am. Maybe they were delusional. I certainly wondered if they were, because I surely didn’t deserve their attention.

We were not The Solid Gold Dancers Meets Jesus Christ Superstar of choirs. But sometimes, an audience would almost have you thinking you were a celebrity. Say, for example, when you approached the microphone for your solo. That’s when there was wild, whooping applause—all that and more, before you had even opened your mouth to sing. The thinking in Latin American countries, I suppose, is that the heavier a black woman is and the bigger her breasts are, the better her voice.

Ultimately, however, the international fanfare wasn’t the choir’s to claim. It belonged to the music.

tuenight trip penny wren gospel choir
(Photo: Penny Wren)

Gospel music is…well, it’s life. Gospel music is Oh, Happy Day and How I Got Over and Trouble In My Way (I Have to Cry Sometimes). If music truly is a universal language, as Stevie Wonder suggests, then the gospel singer’s voice is the most globally appreciated instrument—and gospel music itself is the universal expression for “I see you” (like a high five, a nod, and a wink all rolled up into one).

Our concerts were packed with people who spoke little English, if any at all. But in every city, they all knew what we were saying. That knowingness was never any clearer for me than at the point in the concert when one of our altos, Audrey, would sing “Come Sunday,” a composition by Duke Ellington, part of his Sacred Works series, that he recorded with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

From the time Audrey began that first refrain, “Lord, dear Lord, above. God of mercy, God of love. Please, come down and see my people through,” you wouldn’t even hear a chair creak. No one shifted in seats. No one coughed. No one rustled the pages of their programs. Surely, it was quiet enough to hear a pin, but since no one in the audience was moving there were no pins dropping in the first place. If you detected a sound in the audience at all, it’d be a tear hitting the floor every now and then, like the last few beads of leftover water dropping from a faucet.

When you’re a black gospel singer singing in English in Spanish-speaking countries, it doesn’t take long before you see evidence of music’s universal message. And don’t go getting sidetracked by the term the word “message,” either. I’m not talking spiritual salvation; I’m talking vocal inspiration. For the lovely folks of Bogota, Columbia; Quito, Ecuador; and other cities, a black gospel singer’s voice was the ultimate joyful noise.

And, I tell you, nothing delights a black gospel choir more than hearing otherwise non-English speaking people chant, “Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!”

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