Black gospel music unites Korean musiciansPicture a Korean band performing in front of a large, black audience. An unusual scene, perhaps. But if that band is Heritage of Faith, which sings black gospel music in both English and Korean, it might be a different story.
The group, who will appear with Cho PD during the opening of the Jarasum International Jazz Festival in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi province, performs for black gospel churches on U.S. military bases like Camp Henry, Camp Humphrey and Seoul’s Yongsan Garrison. In June, some of the group’s members staged a joint concert with Greg Kelly and Nelson Williams, two noted African-American gospel artists, at Camp Walker in Daegu during a U.S. Army ball in June.
A number of Korean musicians have pursued musical genres like hip-hop and jazz, whose roots are in the black community. But Heritage of Faith, which mixes up different genres like hip-hop, soul, jazz and rhythm and blues, is one of the first Korean bands to focus on black gospel.
Interestingly, their musical accomplishments have been of greater interest to people outside the religious musical scene in Korea, whose devotees tend to prefer more subtlety in their songs.
“People say that the market potential is zero for black gospel in Korea,” says Myron Jung, the band’s producer, “simply because the nature of the music is based on expressions that are not rooted in lived experience. I feel differently. It comes down to the difference of taste.”
Even among more liberal congregations in Korea, the band’s musical preference has been the target of criticism, said Kim Sin, the group’s 26-year old tenor. “But it’s never been the case where we wished we’d have done something other than sing gospel,” he says.
A mix of blues, spirituals, ragtime and shape note, black gospel music emerged in America early in the last century. It has had a tremendous influence on other genres, such as blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues, while conceptually it has played an important role in soothing the wounds of racism.
For the band, practicing black gospel has been a challenging task. Members practice together at least five hours a day in their studio in Sinchon, western Seoul. Separately, individual artists pursue breathing exercises and keep their body in shape, for regular conditioning is needed to sing black gospel. Also, it hasn’t been easy for the young band members, who are between the ages of 20 and 26, to understand the spiritual context of black gospel as experienced by African-American churches in an era of intense segregation.
But so far, the band, which consists of eight vocalists and six instrumentalists, has been caught up in a fever of enthusiasm. They’ve collaborated with Cho PD on his latest album, “Church 2 Da Street,” and staged a joint concert with Asoto Union, a veteran jazz band.
In May, the group appeared at the Blue Note Seoul, a cutting-edge venue for jazz and blues. When the members presented their repertoire in English, it was a revival of a scene from “Sister Act.”
The hearts of many of the group’s artists, though, still lie squarely with the people of their musical home.
“They stand up and shout if they really like the show,” says Mr. Jung, the producer, referring to the group’s performances in front of black audiences. “If we make a slip, though, they all suddenly sit up. Their expressions of faith seem very honest and unreserved.”
by Park Soo-mee
“Heritage of Faith” performs at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10 at the Jarasum International Jazz Festival. For more information, call (02) 3675-2754.