Bill Whelan
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Bermuda

The green trees of Georgia recede as the 737 pushes into the upper air above Atlanta and we are en route to Bermuda. As I leave America, it is hard not to think that it is right now in the throes of a momentous decision. In some ways, it feels as if the real choice it must make is now, not in November, and that the issue is whether it will bet on the future or simply extend the past. It is an exciting time, a time for bravery, and one hopes that America will seize the day.

Atlanta brought back some memories. I recall in 1994 visiting the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King memorial. I had come to Atlanta to search for a gospel choir for Riverdance and it was here that I was introduced to James Bignon’s Deliverance Ensemble, who were to eventually join the first production of the show at the Point Theatre in Dublin. I remember my friend Jim Flannery taking me around various communities in Atlanta, visiting church halls and watching gospel choirs going through their paces in rehearsal.

I recall one very memorable rehearsal we attended. We arrived to this large church when the singing had already begun, and we were ushered into a pew where we sat transfixed for an hour, two white Paddies in a room of African Americans - watching some of the most detailed choral direction. Sharp focus was brought to bear on expression, dynamics, tuning and blend. I have rarely seen a room of 80 people so unified in purpose and concentrated. At the end of the rehearsal, the director asked the choir if anyone wanted to share anything. For the next five minutes or so, several choir members told personal stories from their current lives. One woman had a nephew who was mixed up in a raid on a liquor store. Another had a brother in hospital, terminally ill. A man told of the birth of his new baby son. Throughout these very personal narratives, all around there came murmured expressions of sympathy, joy or support from the choir. Then everybody stood up. Jim Flannery and I were invited over as a large circle formed and we all joined hands. What followed was a prayer and then it was all over. Choir practice, Atlanta-style opened my eyes to the integrated role that music had in the lives of these people and that when they stood up to sing the next Sunday, they didn’t just display the results of the hard work done on the musical detail. They also brought with them the deep sense of each other, their joys and sadness, and their strong hope and faith and the comfort they got from their music and singing.

More, about Bermuda and other matters in my next blog.