Recently I have commented on the need for cultural inclusivity in Northern Ireland and I was thinking about that again this evening.
Earlier tonight I was singing at the weekly Saturday night praise service in the Bethel Elim Pentecostal Church in Berlin Street, off the Shankill Road. The church building is in the heart of the Shankill area and it has been there for many years. The Saturday night meeting is part of their weekly programme and starts at 7.00 with tea and toast for the congregation. The service then gets underway at 7.30 with the congregation singing some choruses and then there are usually three singers, who each sing three or four gospel songs, two in the first half and then one or two in the second.
All the pieces are simple gospel songs, with a focus on basic Christian themes of God, sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and the accompaniment is often provided by the singer on a guitar or accordion.
Many of the songs are well known to the congregation and folk will often join in and sing along, especially in the choruses. Sometimes the singer invites them to sing along and at other times it just happens spontaneously. This is possible because either the songs are well known or the choruses are simple and can be learned quickly.
Many of the songs are taken from the general repertoire of gospel music but some singers write some of their own songs and some put alternative words to popular tunes. There is a long tradition of this and as an example the hymnbook of the Faith Mission includes hymns set to Scottish tunes such as Auld Lang Syne and tunes written by the Scotch-Irish composer Stephen Foster.
After each singer had sung tonight the pastor made a short comment on each of the songs, explaining and applying the message of the songs, perhaps using a Bible verse or through an illustrative story. In some other places the pastor will simply introduce the singers and then give a short address at the end.
During the service there was a collection for the Northern Ireland Hospice, which raised several hundred pounds, and the evening finished around 9.00. For many of those who attended this is an important part of their week and this is how they spend Saturday nights for much of the year.
This type of praise service, with songs sung in a country gospel or Southern gospel style, takes places regularly in many evangelical churches and mission halls across Ulster and it is is a long established part of our rich cultural diversity.
I suspect that few if any of those in the cultural establishment attend such meetings and it is a cultural expression with which they are probably unfamiliar. For that reason this type of music does not feature in mainstream cultural festivals. But if we are to have the inclusivity that I believe to be essential for a shared and better future then such music must be brought in from the margins to the mainstream.
It is undoubtedly popular, not just in the setting of a praise service in a church or mission hall, but on the radio and in major venues. Radio Foyle has a weekly Sunday afternoon programme called Rejoice, which includes a lot of this type of music, and in recent times I have attended Southern gospel events in the Odyssey and the Theatre at the Mill in Mossley. Some of the singers have been visiting singers from America but others have been local gospel singers and groups and some of those local singers are of a very high standard.
If a festival is an Irish traditional music festival, then it should deliver Irish traditional music, and if it is a jazz festival then the programme should be jazz. However there are also festivals which are general in their content and which should be inclusive in their programming. The organisers may not themselves be familiar with this music genre but they could engage with those who are. In recent months I have raised the issue with a number of people and I hope that they will now rise to the challenge.
In the world of culture there is much talk about the importance audience development and here is an opportunity for those who manage festivals and venues to reach out to new audiences by including another musical genre in their programmes.
Some other parts of the world are way ahead of us in this regard. Earlier this year I visited North Carolina, which is part of the 'Bible belt', and I was interested to hear from the deputy director of one major venue about how they see this as an opportunity. Her venue includes an open-air performance space and when it opened they used that space to put on an open-air gospel concert. For them it was a natural thing to do. There are many evangelical Christians in the state and they are happy to programme events that will appeal to them. To them it seems so simple and so sensible.