When the Fisk Jubilee Singers became the first international gospel group ever to tour Europe in 1877, they also visited the Netherlands. The group was formed to raise money for their ailing college in Nashville, but their popularity in America and Europe is triggering much more. They introduce the black spiritualswhich will later evolve into gospel music, to a wide audience.
The Dutch halls are also sold out quickly. The reviews are positive and even King Willem III gets wind of it. He sees the Fisk Singers in Rotterdam and invites them to a private concert at Paleis ‘t Loo. He pays 500 guilders for the 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 of slavery, to the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, gospel music keeps popping up.
The musical impact may be even greater. Of course, almost every soul singer is actually a gospel singer, but co-curator and Dutch main gospel asset Shirma Rouse also makes connections with rappers such as 2Pac, MC Hammer and Typhoon and pop icons such as Madonna and Mariah Carey. It is almost impossible not to dance through the stately cloisters of the Utrecht museum.
It is remarkable that the museum for religious art chooses not to put too much emphasis on the religious side. This ensures an accessible focus on music and social impact, but also quickly ignores a few inconveniences.
Of course there is attention for the slavery past, the humus layer of the genre. A special object is the Slave Bible from 1807, on display for the first three months, on loan from the University of Glasgow. There are only three surviving copies of this selection of Bibles used to Christianize enslaved people in the British Caribbean. It is open to the page where texts containing arguments against slavery have been omitted.
Those liberating Bible texts were actually used in the sung in the nineteenth century spirituals who gave hope to the enslaved, like Go Down Moses. The exhibition is not very critical on this point. Yes, the positive message of gospel emancipated, but it was also a sop to prevent slave revolts. The infectious music was also used to get enslaved people into the church, an imposed religion that had also served to justify slavery. The exhibition separates gospel music from the institutional church, but the two are, of course, intimately entwined.
The same complexity is avoided in the room full of African, Surinamese and Antillean drums in which poet Gershwin Bonevacia discusses on a video how gospel is based on spiritual music that enslaved people played for completely different gods. That it is precisely those gods who are still expelled with song and sermons in various gospel churches, such as those of the Pentecostal church, and are put away as devils, remains undisclosed.
Those who come for a beautiful and relevant story about the power of music can indulge themselves in Museum Catharijneconvent. Dutch recordings, such as by gospel queen Mahalia Jackson and the speech by Martin Luther King at his honorary 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 greats like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward who also brought gospel to the nightclub. 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 church remains implicit. More attention could be paid to Tharpe, who was one of the first musicians to pick up an electric guitar and tour the segregated South of America with her also black girlfriend in the 1950s. But not everything fits in an exhibition around the rich genre. Museum Catharijneconvent at least puts a swinging spotlight on this influential, but often forgotten genre in the Netherlands.
And how did the Fisk Jubilee singers fare in the Netherlands in 1877? From research by the compilers of Gospel it appears that they became aware of the lack of attention for former enslaved Surinamese in Dutch society. They donated the proceeds of their Amsterdam closing concert to Afro-Surinamese.
Gospel. Musical journey of strength and hope can be seen until April 10, 2023 in Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 1, 2022