New directions for gospel emerges in Barbados, comedy to jazz
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – Finding oneself among throngs of believers singing songs of praise on the Caribbean island of Barbados was decidedly uplifting. The atmosphere at the Sunset Concert of Gospelfest in Barbados was a stark contrast to the urban secularism and its cynical attitudes towards just about any firm beliefs. Here, dozens of youthful artists from local church groups to artists from neighboring islands of the Caribbean – or even the Toronto-based group, YungSaintz, who performed their songs of praise – encouraged youthful audiences to go to church “as you are.”
But what was even more surprising was that gospel here was more than swaying masses singing hymns to Jesus. Here, music melded with the history of the island. Gospel was presented side-by-side the suave notes of a jazz musician or the questioning comedy of a wisecracking dummy called Woody, the sidekick of a hard-hitting Atlanta ventriloquist.
Youth acquiring “ministries”
In Barbados, I discovered gospel had meandered from the preacher’s pulpit. Young and old artists acquire “ministries,” acting out their devotion in a variety of forms. These ministries even talk about subjects as diverse as divorce, loneliness, or the Christian-Muslim divide.
“In the Caribbean, gospel music is culture and their form of expression,” said Rodney Sammy-Guilarte, Managing Director of the Trinidad-based Acts25 radio station, himself scouting talent at the festival. “For too long people pictured Christian life as a kind of a utopian lifestyle.”
The actors at this gospel event range from the electric Jamaican one-time reggae and dancehall artist turned gospel-singer Papa San, to Cashewna Bishop, an island resident who, stricken with autism, overcame her affliction only to develop her ministry in the form of a powerful performing voice.
“What they don’t realize is that we feel pain, hurt, and suffer just like everybody else. For us, gospel is about moving beyond that,” added Sammy-Guilarte.
In contrast to the North American scene where gospel music has developed into a prosperous industry that speaks to both secular and devout audiences, gospel in Barbados is still a grassroots, community phenomenon that emanates from local communities.
Here gospel is present in the form of choirs at churches, dance, or theatrical groups. Ministries here are generally part-time ventures shared in places of worship, during festivals. and special events.
From jazz to gospel
Barbadian singer and songwriter, Kellie Cadogan, like many artists, made her way to gospel after years working as a jazz singer in front of secular audience. Re-committing herself to her faith leads her to seek gospel audiences and performing largely to devout crowds.
“In taking that step, I wanted to continue to do my jazz but do a crossover like gospel-jazz,” said Cardogan.
“I am not strictly a gospel singer, because I sing other styles of music as well. But my jazz is always inspiring and positive,” she said, “But gospel is always about a personal experience.”
Jazz tones also came in the form of the soulful saxophone of the US-based Antonio Allen, who played at several events over the nine days of Gospelfest. The crescendo was the devotional concert “Awesome,” a more traditional mass choir of over a hundred performers who brought many in attendance to tears.
For deeply devout Barbadians, Gospel starts in the hundreds of churches that dot the island landscape and spreads through radio call-in shows.
A landscape of contrasts
This verdant island reveals contrasting tones – from its high-end hotels, golf courses, and restaurants – characterized by the gated western coast, while the wind-beaten eastern shores of the island include small villages and open landscapes that reveal the English colonial history.
Small chattel houses are still common, reminders of the island’s history under slavery. These houses were built for freed slaves who were forced to move quickly from one plantation to another on the whims of plantation owners.
“I try to be real, because we live in a real world, and you have to bring real issues to people for them to pay attention,” said comedian turned gospel ventriloquist Willie Brown, whose gospel comedy touches on raw notes. “When you are doing comedy – especially Christian or gospel comedy – you are on a tightrope.”
Willie Brown’s performance is gritty, his main character, “Woody,” is a hip young sharp-mouthed wise-cracker. He and his sidekick talk in a down-to-earth tone about family, homelessness, or even current-event themes like the Muslim-Christian divide. Together they perform regularly in churches, colleges, theaters, and comedy clubs throughout the US.
“I do have references to the Bible and some material about Jesus, which makes it gospel comedy,” said Brown, the morning after his performance at the Divvy Southwinds Beach Resort, “Christians really need to laugh, because they can be really uptight. They need to know that they can have fun, too.”
Gospelfest 2011 will take place between May 21-29, 2011 and will be headlined by Cincinnati-born Gospel artist William McDowell whose album, As we worship, features the popular anthem, “I give myself away so you can use me.” The event consists of concerts, choirs, and performances throughout the island. For more information call  426 5128 or visit http://www.barbadosgospelfest.com .