Rita MacNeil wrote such popular songs as "Working Man" and "Home I'll Be," delivering them to audiences in a church-choir voice. But the woman described as the Queen Mother of Canadian music upon her death at age 68 earlier this month, didn't read music.
What she had was a sweet voice and something to say. It's a similar story for some in the Universal Gospel Choir-a varied group of singers passionate about music and all its traditions from the world's cultures. Director Kathryn Nicholson will lead the 65-voice chorus in a special fundraising concert in Richmond on May 5.
"If you don't read music it doesn't preclude you from participating in this choir," she said in an interview. "It is a limiting thing in some ways, but it's also a freeing thing in other ways. Often people who've learned their music through osmosis-by listening-are better attuned to pitch and rhythm."
Recognizing her singers' different learning styles, she joins with pianist Diane Lines to make music available to them online so they can learn it by ear. Learning by listening, and call-and-response, is also a tradition in gospel music-the choir's specialty.
Singing the world's sacred and social conscience songs since 1985, the Universal Gospel Choir is true to its name, singing from a song repertoire from traditions that include African-American, Cuban, African, European, Jewish, Asian and Native American.
The multi-faith, multicultural choir's goal is to bring help and healing through song and gospel music's universal message: peace, hope and love.
"This kind of music is very unexpectedly uplifting and entertaining. World music often is. It's got such rhythmic richness and variety to it," said Nicholson. "People usually walk out of our concerts dancing-in their heart if not with their feet."
Nicholson began directing the choir in 2007. Her musical background is extensive-as is her experience in health care. Her first career in nursing grew into one of counselling and music therapy.
"I just found that quite intriguing, the use of music in settings where people were hurting and needed some strategies for pain and symptom management," she said. "I loved that work tremendously and learned the power of music, the power of sound, the power of the message that music carries."
Nicholson also spent 14 years as the music director at a Unitarian church-a church that honours all faith traditions and highlights common truths-which allowed her to choose music well beyond the hymnbook.
"I loved that concept of understanding there is truth and beauty all around us if we look for it."
Joining the Universal Gospel Choir gave her a chance to open a new musical window-to gospel music.
"I find it to be sort of like cosmic R&B. I've just loved exploring all these different genres and pulling together a program that includes some really exciting, lift-you-right-out-of-your-seats gospel music and then a very poignant Hebrew prayer or a Muslim chant."
In 2009 she volunteered for a month in Africa, the sounds of which will be on stage in Richmond. The local concert will feature a couple upbeat African pieces-one is in Swahili, another a call-and-response song about a mother asking her son to take care of the family while she's away. In the developing world, when parents leave, there's a real possibility they won't return. Grandmothers step in, caring for millions of children, many orphaned by AIDS.
"You very seldom hear a plaintive African tune-it's always lots of drumming and dancing and singing. So even if the subject matter is more serious or more spiritual, they gather the spirit around them through their music in a very energetic way."
The Richmond show is dedicated to those African grandmothers and community-based organizations that care for them and the millions of children in their care. The Richmond Gogos are the organizers behind the concert, proceeds of which go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.
Universal Gospel Choir
Sunday, May 5 at Fraserview Church, 11295 Mellis Dr.
Marketplace opens at 7 p.m.; concert at 8 p.m.
Tickets, $20, at ticketstonight.ca or call Jane Anderson: 604-275-3460