Gospel music in Paris flourishes

Clyde Wright

France may be the most militantly secular country in Europe, but Paris's gospel scene is flourishing.

The choir sways and their orange robes sway with them. The conductor, packed in an ice-cream-white suit, urging them on, while out front the Reverend Jean Carpenter - moving quite possibly like nobody has ever moved before in this ancient church in the medieval heart of Paris - sings praise to the Lord.

The person who emailed to say I should go and hear her sing described her voice in one word - "Biiiiiiiiiiig".

She wasn't exaggerating.

"Oh my gosh!" she cries when asked how she feels when she's up there performing. "I want to dance! I want to sing! I want to touch everybody! I want to touch Jesus! I want to see his face! When I'm up there, I feel love."

Not the sort of thing the French are used to hearing.

Jean Carpenter performing with a choir called Total Praise at Paris's Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile church The Reverend Jean Carpenter (right) is a renowned gospel singer

France - with its burka ban, and strict separation of church and state - is the most militantly secular country in Europe. Many people regard religion with suspicion and even the six per cent who regularly go to church are often shy of using the J-word, let alone shaking their stuff in church to praise Him.

It's a difference in religious culture as wide as the Atlantic, which is maybe one reason gospel concerts here sometimes provoke intense reactions.

"I don't preach, but I speak 'Franglais' with the people and they help me with my French," says Jean, who hails from Queens in New York State. "I ask them if they understand and they say 'Yes!' And sometimes we all end up in tears. We end up touched by what comes through me and then, in essence, it touches them and then they give it back. We can have such a powerful time."

Like the time a man who'd lost his daughter came to talk to her after the concert.

"She had died. He told me he needed prayer," Jean recalls. "And needed someone to pray with. So we held him, we hugged him and cried with him and we found the priest of a church and we put him in contact with that church.

"That is what we are hoping to do. Not just do a show and leave. No! No! I would not have done my job if that happens."

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University on a visit to England where they where invited to give a concert before Queen Victoria (front row from left to right: Jennie Jackson, Mabel Lewis, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Carnes, America W Robinson; back row left to right: Maggie Porter, E W Watkins, H D Alexander, F J Loudin and Thomas Rutling) The Fisk Jubilee Singers performed gospel music in Paris in the 1870s

For Jean Carpenter and the other singers on Paris's flourishing gospel scene, this music is not a style - it is a mission.

Indeed, she says, the reason she moved here was that, after singing in Paris for the first time on tour in 2004, she thought her voice and her ministry would make more impact in France than back in the USA.

"African-American gospel? Oh, the French just go crazy," says another long-term Paris resident Ricki Stevenson. She is the creator of Black Paris Tours, which guides tourists round the landmarks of black America's long love affair with this city.

"It's kind of surprising, but the French just have a passion for this music," she says. "They feel deeply those sounds. It touches them in a way that I have not seen a lot of others being touched."

Josephine Baker Black American artists such as Josephine Baker are identified with France

Gospel musicians were at the forefront of a movement of black American artists from the US to France. Later on came the likes of Sidney Bechet, Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. But the first were a gospel ensemble called The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who came to Paris as early as the 1870s.

They also performed in England during that tour and sang "Go Down, Moses" to Queen Victoria.

The Wilberforce Choir came to Paris in the 1900s. Much later, in the 1950s, one of the most celebrated gospel groups of all time, the Golden Gate Quartet, didn't just play in Paris, it settled down in the city and stayed.

Clyde Wright Paris-based Clyde Wright says only gospel music has meaning for him

Still swinging at 84, lead singer Clyde Wright remains in Paris today.

Sure, he says, there was racism in France too. You could still see the same dark looks in some people's eyes. But there wasn't the institutionalised racism he'd known growing up in North Carolina.

"We had to walk about three kilometres (two miles) to get to school," Wright remembers.

The rise of gospel music

  • Predated by songs of praise and worship to cultural gods of indigenous African people
  • Transatlantic slave trade saw Christian message incorporated into "black music"
  • Developed through work songs in 19th Century, jubilees (sung in church) and social gospel
  • New brand of socially-aware gospel music from mid-1920s inspired by civil rights struggle, segregation and inequality
  • Popularly seen as church-based "praise music", but now expressed in many music genres, including reggae and jazz

"In the winter time, it was cold with no shoes on your feet or whatever shoes you could find. There was a bus, but on that bus there were about 13 whites - boys and girls on their way to their brick school. And that bus would just pass by us, and if you were in the way, he would blow the horn and say, 'Get over'... not one would stop and say, 'Get in'. That was out of the question."

Gospel music was the milk he was raised on.

"I'm very religious," he says. "I've sung other songs, but for me it has no meaning. It's just for the pleasure of people. But (gospel) is soul music and that is something that I learned as a child. In pop music, they have what they call soul music, but soul music, in reality, it's the old negro spirituals sung in the days of slavery."

At a Paris club called the Speakeasy, a few paces from the Arc de Triomphe, another pillar of the Paris gospel scene, Linda Lee Hopkins, even throws in the occasional gospel number when she's singing to the night-time cocktail crowd.

Linda Lee Hopkins Gospel singer Linda Lee Hopkins has been asked to tone down references to Jesus

She's full of stories about how the Holy Spirit works through this music - about French people in tears, French people feeling something, French people getting over their initial hostility to anyone or anything to do with religion. But sometimes, when they're booking her in to play somewhere, people ask her to tone down the God stuff.

"They want you to compromise sometimes. They want gospel because they think it's radio music - especially the songs from Sister Act," she says. "I tell them, 'That is not gospel. They are secular songs adapted for the film.' So if they tell me, 'I want you to sing gospel, but don't mention Jesus.' It's like He's my life, I cannot not mention Him!"

They don't always understand, says Linda Lee Hopkins.

Wanting gospel music without the gospels, without Jesus, without the Lord, is like wanting cake without the flour, she says. So what does she do? She leaves it up to the Holy Spirit. If He wants her to sing about Jesus, she does. And guess what? He does.

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