Gospel in Montreal: Tradition meets Modernity
Place des Arts will soon play host to two major gospel music groups: the Soweto Gospel Choir (South Africa) and The Kingdom Choir (United Kingdom). To highlight their appearances here, we spoke to Dr. Trevor Payne, a leading gospel specialist and a seasoned musician who has notably worked with Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, April Wine, Jethro Tull, and Joe Cocker.
Opera, blues, reggae… While it’s true that all these styles of music have deep roots, none is as deeply rooted in a spiritual heritage as gospel singing.
With its origins going back to the songs of 17th century African American slaves, gospel’s ancestor spread through Christian churches in the 19th century southern United States to finally take the form of the gospel music we know today.
“With regard to the work of the Soweto Gospel Choir,” mentions Dr. Payne, who is also the former director of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, “they do an interpretation of the gospel music of the southern United States, which is ironic, given that gospel in fact came from Africa and was transformed… only to make its way back to its continent of origin!”
“But we must distinguish between choral singing and gospel,” he also says. “The two genres are similar, but gospel is based on Christian hymns. I remember my grandmother would sing gospel all day long while doing the dishes and the housework… she was a Christian 24/7!”
The musician, a great fan of Ray Charles, started out in the 1960s with his R&B group Trevor Payne & The Soul Brothers, but soon heard the call of gospel himself. “I understood that it would be my path to salvation,” he says. “In fact, that’s why I studied classical music at McGill in the early 1970s.”
Gospel and Montreal
Gospel music endures in Montreal thanks to the Haitian diaspora. “The community is very religious, and gospel music is often part of their liturgical celebrations,” says Dr. Payne.
The Soweto Gospel Choir also performs the song Hallelujah by iconic Montreal singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. “It’s a good example of the choir’s unique approach, as it incorporates words in the Zulu language into the song,” says Dr. Payne. “All choirs that sing gospel offer their own versions and interpretations of the music: a Francophone and mainly white choir from Drummondville that sings in English will have a different sound from a Black Anglophone choir from Montreal. We’re not in Boston or New York here, much less in Atlanta!”
Beyond the religious aspect, gospel music must be seen (and above all heard) as an artistic expression that lifts the soul and calms the spirit with its powerful vocal harmonies.
The performances at Place des Arts—by the Soweto Gospel Choir, on November 25, 2022, and by The Kingdom Choir, on February 19, 2023—will provide two excellent opportunities to experience and appreciate this form of vocal music.