Lanzarote Gospel Choir, Teatro Tias, January 2020 review
Anne Rees talks about Singing With The Choir interview
My wife and I had spent the previous hour in a wonderful new restaurant Arreyate un Millo, just around the corner from Teatro Tias, extolling the virtues, to our friends Margaret and Iain, of The Lanzarote Gospel Choir we were about to see. That moment had now arrived and we were all buzzing with anticipation from our front row seats in the theatre when, led by their musical director, Ezequiel Barrios, twelve female ´disciples,´ all wearing angelic white tops and jeans, took to the stage.
His seat and keyboard were to the left of the line and from the moment he hit the opening note, with the choir poised to soar as one voice, we knew were in for a real treat. Instead, Ezequiel stopped playing, and told his ´disciples´ to exit the stage and he would call them back when he had sorted out a few things. He instructed them in Spanish, and although I could tell the gist of it from his tone I had no precise idea of what he was saying. There may have been a hint of chastisement in his voice but there was a twinkle in his eyes that belied that, and when the audience (all Spanish, bar a handful) began roaring with laughter, it was obvious that there was some element of teasing here. In what was a great piece of showbiz schtick he reminded us of our obligations to join in with the choir with gusto and to follow his directions for ‘call and response’ sections. He told us too, and in no uncertain terms, that they deserved a much more rapturous applause than that with which we had greeted them. The next hour proved him absolutely right.
What he had being doing, actually, was exercising perfect stage management. In the couple of seconds he had brought his choir on stage the musical conductor had assessed the size and mood of the audience and had noted a slight end-of-the-week lack of the energy we needed to bring to the frenzy a concert by this enthusiastic choir.
He took ownership of the arena, united the crowd into one pulse and won our hearts by showing his care for his choir.
He now brought the disciples back to the stage, and the response from the audience, even as the choir was settling into their line-up was massive.
Ezequiel paused whilst the audience applauded and only at the exact moment that applause might have started to fade did he then start the performance of Freedom all over again. There was then an amazing outburst of joyous energy from the choir that rendered the audience unable to resist. Soon we were all clapping along, swaying, waving our arms and hollering and whooping, and harmonies were ringing out not only from the choir, but also between different sections of the audience. Because he had spent a few minutes alone with the audience preaching about the clapping techniques and rhythm we might like to employ, Ezequiel also suddenly found himself with an excellent percussive line up of, by now about 140 people, with an ability to add a syncopation to the music, (which is a euphemism disguising the fact that we often all seemed to clap at different beats).
I have a problem when listening to Spanish artists talk. They speak Spanish ! And not only that, but they speak it very quickly. So I can’t always be sure of what I’ve heard but at the end of that first number I thought Ezequiel said ´well done´ to us all, and pointed particularly to we four English people in the front row. He seemed to focus on Iain, and identify our friend’s constant thirst for knowledge and understanding, and for one glorious moment it seemed he might call Iain up on stage to join the choir, but sadly that was one miracle that didn’t happen.
The second song was obviously carefully selected to show a slightly more refined tone of the choir and their delivery of Open The Eyes of My Heart was perfectly attuned to the mood of this prayer-like ballad.
This included two particular lyrical refrains that were delivered with harmonious effect, firstly by a solo member singing ´open the eyes of my heart´ and the choir, and subsequently the audience, singing ´the storm is passing over´ to tumultuous effect, skilfully conducted by Ezequiel.
Time and again throughout these two opening pieces, the musical director had created false endings, stopped and started again, each time cajoling more from his singers.
He aided them with his own interventions, and his gruffer vocals perfectly complemented their own higher register. His keyboard work, too, moved from the thumping to the tinkling and throughout this concert there was constant rise and fade from all concerned.
His direction of the classic gospel-soul song Stand By Me brought a fantastic performance from the choir. Written by the rock and roll duo, Leiber and Stoller, with soul singer Ben E King, who then released it as a single in 1961, this was lent a different lease of life by Lanzarote Gospel Choir. As with most of the performances tonight, a different choir member would take a few solo lines in what was always essentially an ensemble delivery.
Between songs Ezequiel was constantly teasing his twelve disciples, but the smile in his eyes and their quite apparent adoration of him reduced all that to mere mutual affection. His relationship with his audience was very similar. He told us off for not applauding a solo singer, sighed at our sensed desire to know more about the choir and at one time threw his hands up in mock-despair when the word hallelujah seemed to be a few syllables more than most of us were able to sing. Nevertheless he told us of the nationalities in the choir, and I thought I deduced that one of them was from Argentina (though I have since been told by a lady who should be my editor, that the lady concerned is German) and one was English. I know for certain that she is English because, much to Anne´s embarrassment, he singled her out for our special attention from the front row.
Not once, though, did he lose the pace of the evening or the patience of the audience and he had us eating out of his hands all the way through the show.
The hallelujah in question here was Leonard Cohen’s famously ´broken´ hallelujah and it was delivered in a beautifully wrapped package with Let It Be, in perfect Beatle-esque sincerity, Amen and a gospel number I had never previously heard called Help Me To Hold Out.
Gospel music has long been a genre of Christian music. Nevertheless the writing and performance style of its songs and in fact even the significance and perhaps, too, the definition of Gospel music is determined by its social and cultural context. Composed and performed for many religious or ceremonial purposes as well as purely for aesthetic pleasure, Gospel music has also become entertainment product aimed at a large niche marketplace. Tonight’s performance was scoring on all points, and the songs from Cohen, Leiber and Stoller and Lennon and McCartney shared the same sentiments as the more predominantly Christian lyrics we heard in other songs on the ´track-list´.
Authentic gospel music has its roots in black oral traditions and began to really emerge in the seventeenth century. Its hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in call and response sessions with church congregations. The hand clapping and foot stomping from the congregation became a hymn’s rhythmic accompaniment to the a capella vocals. The first published use of the term ´gospel song´ appeared in the mid eighteen seventies and gospel-music publishing houses emerged soon afterwards. The advent of radio fifty or so years later actually increased the awareness of, and audience for, gospel music. It was only after World War 2, though, that gospel music stepped into the mainstream, filling major auditoriums with quite elaborate and intricate performances.
The distinguishing features of gospel music include a simplistic delight in its lyrics and sounds, and the fervour, affection and adoration with which its prime performers deliver the songs.
Gospel music includes prayers to God, celebrations of God, stoicism and a readiness to help a fellow human. In a more cynical world, these days, gospel music is sometimes, noticeably, diluted when performed by those who have no belief in what they are singing to or about.
Love of life, though, shone in the eyes of every choir member tonight, and too, a gratitude for the lifestyle that has been bestowed upon them, even on this water-less land. Lanzarote Gospel Choir convinces me they are the real thing. To borrow a title from a Neil Diamond song (recorded by The Monkees), that with a slight tweak to its lyrics could have been an archetypal gospel song, I’m A Believer.
For the final offerings the musical director, in a pink baseball cap, worn the right way round, and blue jeans and white t, and with the swagger of the streets rather than the aisle of any church, led the choir through Until I Die, and finally the iconic Oh Happy Day. This featured yet another excellent soloist, brought out of the choir to centre stage, and then left hanging whilst Ezequiel engaged in a lengthy comedy monologue with the audience. By the time he returned to his instrument, though, whatever nerves she might have had were gone and she delivered an ecstatic version, supported by an ensemble that was sending its sounds to roll around the heavens. The audience roar at the end of the show was deafening, and as other choir members stepped down into the auditorium to greet friends and family, Anne (the English singer) even came and had a word with us. She apparently reads Miguel’s newsletter and Lanzarote Information on-line and she gracefully agreed to conduct a short interview, which we reproduce below.
SINGING WITH THE CHOIR: Anne Rees
We are delighted to now include Anne’s responses to our questions as the perfect example of one way new residents from other countries can settle in here, by picking from the arts and cultures tapas available.
As Anne joined the various organisations she talks about, so my wife Dee became the only English person in a yoga group of mainly Spanish ladies and Dee will tell anyone willing to listen that those ladies were hugely helpful to her in settling here on Lanzarote.
So, we introduced Anne to the ´five bums at the bar´ (so named for reasons we have explained previously on these pages), and invited messrs. Who, What, When, Where and Why to fire questions at her. She handled the salvo perfectly, and informatively, from the opening question of,….
WHO is Anne Rees from England and how did she end up in a Spanish Gospel Choir on Lanzarote?
´My husband and I first came to Lanzarote in 1985. Between 1985 and 2007 we visited the island many times each year. During this time we made many friends and learned many of the local customs. When I say customs I include those of the banks, utility companies and government bodies, which do involve using patience and understanding!! In 2007 we made the move to come and live in Lanzarote permanently, a decision we never regretted.
I had taken Spanish in evening classes in England and even passed a GCSE but that was not a great deal of help when living here and talking with the locals. Not wanting to live feeling I was an outsider I was determined to get as involved as possible with the Spanish community. In England I had attended cookery evening classes and thought that would be a great way to meet and mix with Spanish people while helping my Spanish language.´
´I telephoned Zonzamas school in Arrecife to see if they offered this type of class but discovered they only offered it as a route to working in a hotel or restaurant. However the person who answered the telephone, and the only time she had answered the telephone, was the Head of English. I told her what I wanted to do and she told me she wanted to practise her English so we met and have formed a very good friendship.
From this friendship, along with other English volunteers, we go into schools in Arrecife to give the students practice in conversational English. All of us volunteers agree that we gain as much from this experience as the students. It is great to hear of the young people’s hopes and aspirations.
Among the students I have met there is a Canarian Chess champion, a student who wants to be a seismologist, and another who wants to study in South Korea making computer games, as well as others who are very content and happy to remain living in Lanzarote for the rest of their lives.
I have dabbled in many Spanish activities including Salsa dancing (a complete disaster – no rhythm and not understanding the Spanish), cookery classes (I eventually found some), bridge classes, intercambios (a great way to make friends), and dog training to name but a few.´
WHEN did your love of listening to and singing music begin?
´I was brought up in the sixties so my love of music comes from Top of the Pops. Every week there were new pop songs, to which I probably know the words to this day. It was a great decade for popular music. It was through a Spanish friend who I play golf with that I became aware of the Gospel Choir. Having watched programmes on TV featuring Gareth Malone I had always wondered what it was like to sing among a group of other people. I had no previous singing experience apart from with the radio at home.´
WHAT does it feel like when Ezequiel raises his hands for you all to sing the first note of a concert in a full theatre.
´I only started with the choir in October 2019 and at first was very nervous about singing out in case I ruined it for everyone. I soon became more confident and Ezequiel goes into great detail to make sure we practise each part of the song to get it right. The girls in the choir have been very supportive and welcoming even though most of the time I do not understand “Canarian chat” when everyone is talking together as we do in English. The atmosphere behind the stage on Thursday evening was so exciting. It was like being back at school, a real party feeling, all in it together and we were so animated that we were told off for making too much noise as the theatre was beginning to fill up.´
WHERE, geographically and spiritually has your love of music taken you?
´Having joined the choir and now learning the gospel songs I now realise how uplifting they are and when you hear the sounds made purely by human voices it does send a tingle down your spine.´
WHY did you choose a gospel choir to join, and WHY does gospel feel so uplifting?
´I must admit that Gospel music would probably not have been my first choice (of musical genre) at this stage in life. However, having been brought up to go to church I remember how good it felt to be singing with the congregation when I was young. I went home on Thursday evening on a real high. Ezequiel had done such a great job of involving the audience that everyone, audience and choir, had fun and everyone took part. Who knew you could have so much fun singing? I do, now.´
That had been apparent throughout the evening in which we had seen and heard Lanzarote Gospel Choir affirm a view, stated by Elvis Presley, that ´Gospel music is the purest thing there is on this earth !´