The Belleville a Cappella Choir

Southern Journey, Vol. 11: Honor the Lamb

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That a perceived expert such as Alan Lomax would call this group a "folk choir" while other equally established experts would wind up questioning the inclusion of the choir's material in a so-called folk catalog is yet more fodder for the hungry cattle ready to gnaw on such issues. Taken one by one, the volumes in Lomax's Southern Journey collection on Rounder present a remarkable series of contrasts, something that is thankfully natural to the folk music experience no matter how one chooses to draw the lines of definition. Shock might be a more accurate description than simply contrast when the listener arrives at Southern Journey, Vol. 11: Honor the Lamb after experiencing the previous two volumes in the series.Southern Journey, Vol. 9: Harp of 1,000 Strings and Southern Journey, Vol. 10: And Glory Shone Around are collections of shape note singing, a traditional approach to choral music that is so unique it has evoked comparisons to avant-garde music as well as civil disturbances. The 11th volume in this collection-collapsing series of Lomax productions is also devoted to religious choral singing, in this case the singing of the Belleville A Cappella Choir. This time the listener will be abruptly forced to change focus, reminded of nothing else but gospel music, albeit some of the most beautiful in existence.

The philosophy of the church that this choir is associated with might be considered a bit unusual, but the sounds really represent mainstream gospel musical thought at its most expanded. Of course it could also be argued that the lack of a Baptist "born-again" Christian aesthetic works to the advantage of the performances, seeing as the Church of God and Saints of Christ believes African-Americans descend from the lost tribes of Israel, the congregation practicing a variety of aspects similar to Judaism. If, on the next page of the prayer book, the discussion is to center around purely musical distinctions, it is more important to mention that the choir masters its material totally by ear, at the same time not limiting itself to the simpler arrangements or harmonic structures that such approach might favor. Much like brilliant composer and bandleader Charles Mingus and his bandmembers, the Belleville A Cappella Choir creates performances of intense complexity, storing the game plan in their hearts and souls rather than on the printed page. "What a Time," one of many numbers in which the superb soloist Caleb Garris is featured, is a choice for one track to listen to in order to convince skeptics of the value of this particular volume. Such a person might only be holding out due to the sheer volume of material being released in this arrangement between Lomax and Rounder, thus also the tendency to brand certain stock as less "real folk" and thus less necessary. Choral music in particular may not be to everyone's choice, whether the performers sound like they wandered in from a tobacco field or as polished as an ensemble on the stage at Carnegie Hall. But for those who enjoy the range of possibilities always explicit in church singing, this program presents a particularly fine collection of hymns, another highlight of which is the divine "Keep Me as the Apple of Thine Eye."

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