When the Fisk Jubilee Singers became the first international gospel group everto tour Europe in 1877, they also visited the Netherlands. The group wasformed to raise money for their ailing college in Nashville, but theirpopularity in America and Europe is triggering much more. They introduce theblack spirituals which will later evolve into gospel music, to a wideaudience.
The Dutch halls are also sold out quickly. The reviews are positive and evenKing Willem III gets wind of it. ____He sees the Fisk Singers in Rotterdam andinvites them to a private concert at Paleis ‘t Loo. He pays 500 guilders forthe performances.
2Pac and Typhoon
The preserved royal receipt is one of the surprising finds in the exhibition_Gospel. Musical journey of strength and hope_ in Museum Catharijneconvent.Central to this is the musical appeal of the African-American music genre,which plays a role in several waves of emancipation. From abolition ofslavery, to the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, gospel musickeeps popping up.
The musical impact may be even greater. Of course, almost every soul singer isactually a gospel singer, but co-curator and Dutch main gospel asset ShirmaRouse also makes connections with rappers such as 2Pac, MC Hammer and Typhoonand pop icons such as Madonna and Mariah Carey. It is almost impossible not todance through the stately cloisters of the Utrecht museum.
It is remarkable that the museum for religious art chooses not to put too muchemphasis on the religious side. This ensures an accessible focus on music andsocial impact, but also quickly ignores a few inconveniences.
Of course there is attention for the slavery past, the humus layer of thegenre. A special object is the Slave Bible from 1807, on display for the firstthree months, on loan from the University of Glasgow. There are only threesurviving copies of this selection of Bibles used to Christianize enslavedpeople in the British Caribbean. It is open to the page where texts containingarguments against slavery have been omitted.
Those liberating Bible texts were actually used in the sung in the nineteenthcentury spirituals who gave hope to the enslaved, like Go Down Moses. Theexhibition is not very critical on this point. Yes, the positive message ofgospel emancipated, but it was also a sop to prevent slave revolts. Theinfectious music was also used to get enslaved people into the church, animposed religion that had also served to justify slavery. The exhibitionseparates gospel music from the institutional church, but the two are, ofcourse, intimately entwined.
The same complexity is avoided in the room full of African, Surinamese andAntillean drums in which poet Gershwin Bonevacia discusses on a video howgospel is based on spiritual music that enslaved people played for completelydifferent gods. That it is precisely those gods who are still expelled withsong and sermons in various gospel churches, such as those of the Pentecostalchurch, and are put away as devils, remains undisclosed.
Those who come for a beautiful and relevant story about the power of music canindulge themselves in Museum Catharijneconvent. Dutch recordings, such as bygospel queen Mahalia Jackson and the speech by Martin Luther King at hishonorary doctorate at the Free University, bring the American genre closer.
Ample attention is paid to founders such as ‘father of gospel music’ Thomas A.Dorsey, to Aretha Franklin’s monumental rendition of Amazing Grace, and greatslike Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward who also brought gospel to thenightclub. The latter can even be seen visiting Hugh Hefner, owner of Playboy.
The role of women’s emancipation in gospel music and thus in the churchremains implicit. More attention could be paid to Tharpe, who was one of thefirst musicians to pick up an electric guitar and tour the segregated South ofAmerica with her also black girlfriend in the 1950s. But not everything fitsin an exhibition around the rich genre. Museum Catharijneconvent at least putsa swinging spotlight on this influential, but often forgotten genre in theNetherlands.
And how did the Fisk Jubilee singers fare in the Netherlands in 1877? Fromresearch by the compilers of Gospel it appears that they became aware of thelack of attention for former enslaved Surinamese in Dutch society. Theydonated the proceeds of their Amsterdam closing concert to Afro-Surinamese.
Gospel. Musical journey of strength and hope can be seen until April 10, 2023in Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.