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Spreading the gospel in France

Spreading the gospel in France
  • PublishedMay 8, 2014

Gospel music is undergoing a renaissance in France, after a dip from the “golden era” of the 1990s. Alecia D. McKenzie reports.

Linda Lee Hopkins has seen every type of audience in France – those who believe in the message in her music, those who see gospel as an exotic art form and those who just want to enjoy the finger-snapping, foot-tapping beat. Sometimes, even a combination of all three. 

 “There are a lot of people who come to the shows who are not at all interested in religion,” Hopkins says. “I remember one lady saying she came to hear the music, not to hear preaching, but by the end of the show, she was transported. She didn’t speak English, but her heart was touched somehow. We see that often.”

These are the people who keep attending the concerts and bringing their friends, contributing to gospel’s resurgent popularity.  “When you give people joy and light, they will always come back to you and that’s what happens with gospel music,” Hopkins says.

An acclaimed African-American vocalist who has performed in stadiums and even directed a 100-voice choir for 10 years, Hopkins moved to France in 1991 and has given concerts around the country as well as in other European states, including Italy and Russia. She is part of the growing band of gospel performers on the continent. 

“New groups are being created all the time, not only in France but in Germany and other countries. Sometimes the presence of American singers sparks the formation of these community choirs,” she told New African. “But nobody owns the music, it’s international.”

Ensembles and individuals that perform gospel music do represent different regions, but they come primarily from North America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Gospel Dream, a group whose posters can be seen plastered all over Paris, describes itself as a “multi-cultural, cosmopolitan choir of black singers and musicians”, and many of its members hail from African countries. Formed in 1990, the choir is among the most active of gospel groups in France, performing in churches and other venues. In mid-February, they drew several hundred fans to the historic American Cathedral in the upscale 8th arrondissement of Paris, with spectators applauding loudly after each song. Ticket prices ranged from 20 to 30 euros, proving that gospel is also good business.

Besides stadiums and houses of worship, the music is performed in a variety of other places as well. One popular venue in Paris is a restaurant and piano bar where Hopkins and other singers give weekly shows on “American Gospel Night”. In addition, landmark venues such as the Châtelet Theatre have hosted groups including the Soweto Gospel Choir, which performed there in 2009.

Along the River Seine, in the Bercy neighbourhood of eastern Paris, an African-American entrepreneur even organised “gospel brunches” on a boat moored to the quay. Music lovers had to cross a metal gangplank to enter the vessel, where ensembles delivered an energetic beat on Sunday mornings while diners enjoyed their “soul-food” brunch.

“Gospel has never gone away but it was really popular in the 1990s and now it’s rising again,” says Ricki Stevenson, an African-American businesswoman who heads a venture called Black Paris Tours.

Stevenson has been based in Paris for 16 years, and she takes local and international tourists on excursions that teach them about aspects of black culture in the city. The stops include venues where gospel music is performed, and tour participants can get to watch certain concerts.

 “Gospel is popular in France because the audience understands the emotion even if they might not understand all the words,” Stevenson has said. “The music … encapsulates all the joy, bitterness and sadness, and audiences can relate to that.”

Written By
New African

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