Pop Goes The Gospel

NENGI ILAGHA – I HAVE a doting father who continually warns me not to move around at night. His point is not completely out of place. As Shakespeare put it, “good things of day begin to droop and drouse, while night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.” In short, the night is dangerous. In the words of the Carribbean poet laureate, Derek Walcott, “the night hides with a knife.” In most

 Nigerian cities today, nightfall comes like a dreaded disease. When the marauders are about, nightlife slinks out of focus.

Still, something about the night, its tenebris, its tranquillity, holds a certain enchantment that I find hard to resist. Something about the hollow sound of my footsteps pounding the deserted street echoes the loneliness I want to come to grips with. Night time is probably the best time to write, too. I pride myself on this pet theory: that when every one falls asleep, ideas get liberated. They fly about in the misty air, and you could pluck so much of them to enrich your mind. The night is really not a time to sleep. It is for work, productive work. Ask Dan Agbese.

Indeed there is something that a father’s warning does to you. You shrink in spite of yourself. You become more cautious. Of all things, that is why I dread travelling at night to this day. Some time ago, however, I got a trifle brave. I took a night bus from Lagos down to Port Harcourt in a gangling bus, the cheapest Concord variety on the road. From the moment the journey began, I knew that many fathers other than mine must have been talking to their children about the dangers of the night.

Here’s what happened. That bus suddenly erupted with songs from so many lips trembling with fear, for the menace of highway robbers is not something to joke about. Every other seat suddenly seemed to harbour a preacher. And the most hardboiled of miscreants became penitent on that trip. So I know now that all long distance buses become churches for as long as the wheels roll on.

Gospel music sounded sweet that night. Not that it sounds bitter at any other time. I never tire of listening to a sonorous voice give a moving rendition of just about any gospel tune. It brings my spirit awake. These days, the popularity of the medium is becoming more evident in a mega-mix culture that sucks everything into its vortex – from akpala, soul, funk, disco, reggae and rap – all of these seem to be entering a refinery that can only be described as sublime. The gospel has surely gone pop.

Indeed it would be a great error to confuse what is known today as gospel music with the more orthodox hymns of John Bunyan, John Wesley and others that are sung to the accompaniment of the chapel piano. You can’t hear those tunes even now without thinking of Sunday school catechisms. They make you hark back to the missionary days.                                                              

And, inevitably, too, you begin to think of the slavery days. In fact, music buffs say the first evolutionary stage of this kind of music cannot be divorced from the revivalist movement in the Negro churches of the Americas, and the plantation spirituals which wafted from the voices of slave workers into that fantasy kingdom called Beulah Land.

Worship songs have grown beyond all that now. They have flourished in the voices of great artistes. Think of Al Green, Candi Staton, Andrae Crouch, Mary Mckee and the Genesis. And think of Jim Reeves. I always pine for the rock numbers of Garth Hewitt and Bernie Flint on that popular TV show, “Pop Gospel” which is especially enhanced by the deft choreography of the dancers on stage. The message of course is never in doubt: praise to God Almighty, in worship and adoration, to win converts, or else for simple recreation.

In Nigeria today, the music industry is becoming even more luxuriant with indigenous gospel singers. They point to an alternative tradition of music for the future. And the evidence lies in the swelling number of gifted artistes performing every Sunday in church concerts and fellowships all over the country. They constituted the prime attraction at the Living Spring, that mammoth annual assembly for which the All Souls Chapel, Ife, is well known. They are present at the Kingdom Music Festival of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission, Lagos. They populate Shiloh, Bishop David Oyedepo’s end of year spiritual fever of a party. They are all about.

From the onset, the most popular of the indigenous breed was Panam Percy Paul. The most aggressive were perhaps the late Sonny Okosuns who crossed over from pop to gospel so seamlessly, and won the hearts of listeners on radio and television. And then, of course, there was Lorrine Okotie who, in 1991, sold close to 25,000 copies of “Love Medicine” in two weeks of the album’s release. Today, there is a rash of gospel music ensembles that have not been sufficiently highlighted.

Clearly, early financiers of the industry changed their strategies for good, financiers like Ebenezer Obey of De Cross Symphony and larger bodies like the Maranatha Community Church extension in Nigeria. For gospel music, the choirs are expanding. There is abiding hope that the industry, adapting to the changing tastes of Nigerian music lovers, continues to grow into a pop medium for spiritual revival. Not even the more acclaimed financial muscle of the hip-hop-hurray groups will stop it.  Excuse me, I’m off to church. I could do with some jiving.