“THERE’S a party goin’ on right here...” So goes the opening line of Kool & the Gang’s classic ‘Celebration’.
There is, perhaps, no song more fitting to sum up a show by the world famous Harlem Gospel Choir than the inescapable earworm that gets feet tapping, hands clapping, and hips moving.
It has become a staple over the years and is about the only thing predictable about a Harlem Gospel Choir show; it features on every single set.
“A celebration to last throughout the years, so bring your good times and your laughter too; we gonna celebrate your party with you.”
For the last 30 years, the Harlem Gospel Choir has brought soul, blues, and rock and roll to the people of Harlem. In that time, word of mouth turned the group into a household name and tourist attraction that has now performed in every corner of the world, for popes and presidents and alongside some of the biggest names in music.
From Bono to Blur, Diana Ross to the 1975, one and all have sought them out.
While the group was formed in Harlem churches and found prominence as one of the world’s foremost gospel choirs, the shows are not religious and have broad appeal, according to Annie Bailey, manager of the choir.
“Some people hear gospel and think it is something they want to hear,” she says.
“Others have the opposite reaction — it’s something they are not interested in. But, if they come to the show, they will always leave with a smile on their face.
“That is one of our goals. Gospel music has touched so many genres. Rock and roll, at its heart, was just country and western and gospel.”
Annie says this is best emphasised by the regular appearance of ‘Celebration’ on the set. “We perform that every show — it is not a gospel song but it is a good time,” she says.
“All of our members grew up in gospel churches but the music reaches all cultures and faiths. There is no preaching.
“It is a celebration of music, faith, and the people in the audience.”
Harlem Gospel Choir shows are known for their audience interaction, she says. People clap, sing, and move their feet; some people even join the choir on stage and there is always a chance to meet the performers afterwards.
There are no religious robes, no sermonising, and no preaching.
“It is just a good time,” says Annie. “It is great to see people’s faces, the smiling, the laughter.”
After three decades, the show has been fine-tuned to a tee.
“The music has kept up with contemporary songs that are sung in churches in Harlem. It has stayed current with songs that our members are used to singing,” says Annie.
“We have jazz, rhythm, and blues — and that has changed a lot over the years. Every now and then, we bring in the music of one particular musician on a specific tour.
“In the past, that has been Michael Jackson, Prince, Beyonce, Whitney Huston. This year, because of what has happened, there will surely be a little bit of Aretha.”
Soul maestro and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin passed away in August at the age of 76. She was a huge influence on the choir, says Annie. “Not so much in her music but her presence. She was highly respected by our members and so well known. I mean, there was only one Aretha. She could sing, she could compose. She reached so many people despite not leaving the US many times. It was gospel and secular music; it spoke to everyone.”
In just a few weeks, Cork Opera House will be transformed by the Harlem Gospel Choir.
It is not the first time the choir has performed in Cork. In fact, it has become a regular stop on the annual touring schedule of the Harlem Gospel Choir.
Over the years, the band has clocked up more than two million travel miles, performing in China, Australia, Morocco, and all over Europe. They have performed with some of the biggest names in music, including Bono, Diana Ross, Damon Albarn, Pharrell, and, recently, the likes of Jamie xx, Sia, and the 1975. They have performed for three US presidents and two popes, as well as the UN general secretary.
Previous visits to Cork have come as part of the Guinness Jazz Festival.
Annie recalls their first visit to Cork Opera House as one of her favourite experiences in Ireland.
“Cork people are so warm and the Opera House is a great venue so it is always a treat,” she says.
“But the first time we played, I will never forget it. We came on stage and people screamed, full on screamed. They were so excited, it was like being in a rock band. It was wonderful, incredible; I never forgot it.”
- Harlem Gospel Choir play Cork Opera House on Saturday, October 20, at 8pm. Tickets are on sale now at €30 from ticketmaster.ie and corkoperahouse.ie.