Going Gospel at Newport Folk

Mary Hurley
August 2, 2013
Rich Gastwirt
Rich Gastwirt
Rich Gastwirt
Rich Gastwirt

Just like a raise-it-to-the-rafters gospel song, the refrain was repeated after each performance of the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir at the Newport Folk Festival. 

The audience refrain, that is: "Wow. These kids can sing."

The choir and its powerful exuberance captivated festival goers from the moment it took to the legendary main stage to open the final day of the festival on Sunday, July 28. The eight-song, 45-minute set began under a sunny sky with "Strange Fruit," the haunting song of racism and black lynchings in the American South, and ended with a rousing spiritual, "Thank You Lord." It wasn't even noon as the music lovers on the expanse of lawn overlooking the sea rushed the stage to clap hands and dance.

"There was a depth of voice, a depth of spirit," said Eve Dolkart of Boston, one of a group of three young women at the front of the stage who swayed to the music and was visibly moved. "You can't help but dance to it," added friend Claire Fang of Taiwan.

The stellar showing of the group is all the more remarkable because it has been in existence only since June. Created specifically to perform at Newport and the Outside the Box Festival in Boston two weeks earlier, the choir was made up of full-time Berklee students and one student enrolled in the college's 12-week summer program. All were coaxed by their professors to participate in what became a summer immerson program in gospel and roots music.

Although the band members knew each other, most of the vocalists did not, and had never performed together. They rehearsed four hours weekly for three weeks, and then two hours a week before Newport.

"We knew the timeframe," said bass player Mark Minoogian, a music education major. "We knew what had to get done."

That they pulled it off is a credit, the students say, to their teacher, Nedelka Prescod, an assistant professor in the Ensemble Department since January 2013. An educator for more than two decades who has served as choral director for church and community-based youth choirs, she is a recent graduate of the New England Conservatory's contemporary improvisation graduate program.

"Amazing," is how Jenna Glatt, a vocal performance major, described Prescod. "She brings a positive energy to the group. She can have fun with us, and enjoy that. At the same time, she knows how to take control of the group, and be professional and a leader."

"A big part of this is Nedelka," said Ron Savage, chair of the Ensemble Department, who asked her to lead the choir. "She knows how to bring them together, overcome their vulnerabilites, and achieve their best."

Prescod and Savage praised the students for their ability to work together as a group."They are really supportive of one another," Savage noted. "Putting your egos aside and making the music first, that's the bottom line."

Berklee has gospel choirs, but not a group quite like this, with the melding of gospel, roots, and blues music and jazz improvisation. "It was like a jam session with friends," said Jasmine Jefferson, of Warren, New Jersey, a 12-week student who has been singing in her church choir since age 3. The Berklee group never performed a song the same way twice, said bass player Minoogian, who enjoyed the "chords and the artistic improvisation. The freedom, but also the structure."

Said Prescod of her students, "whatever they hear missing, they just fill in the parts."

"They have the jazz and funk chops—they were so in the pocket," said festival goer Jon Stone, of Danvers, Massachusetts. He and his wife, Liz, were passing by the family tent at harbor's edge when the choir performing "God is Great" and "Jesus Children" stopped them in their tracks.

"And I'm an atheist," Jon Stone quipped.

"Absolutely moving. They stole the show," Liz Stone said.

The song selection also connected the choir to the audience. "Strange Fruit" was followed by "Work Song," with talk of a chain gang, and then a seamless merge into "It is Well With My Soul."

"In light of current events, " Prescod said from the main stage, "we just wanted to make a statement." Prescod said later she was referring to, in part, the acquittal of George Zimmerman for charges in the death of Trayvon Martin.

"Artists have a responsibility to speak to the times, as much as they have the power to enhance the times," Prescod said later. "Strange Fruit" is a "call to humanity, not just African Americans," she said. "We're still seeing it. Let's not pretend it isn't there. Let's deal with it."

The choir's rendition of "Yes," with its message to follow your heart and find your calling, spoke to festival goer Erica Meyer of Boston, and her change of careers to become a teacher in a Montessori public charter school in Boston. "They were wonderful," she said of the Berklee group.

Erica attended the festival with her mother, Jamie Meyer, of Chicago, who recalled past festivals with Bob Dylan, veteran gospel singer Mavis Staples, and the tradition of Sunday morning gospel choirs. The Berklee choir is a reflection of what the festival has been, and what it will be.

"They are," Jamie Meyer said, "the Mavises of the future."

Note: The Newport Folk Festival's musical twin sister, the Newport Jazz Festival, follows on the weekend of August 3. As at the folk festival, a Berklee ensemble has been chosen to open the main stage. On Saturday, August 3, Palestinian qanunist and vocalist Ali Amr, a recent Berklee graduate, will lead a group of his former classmates in a set fusing Middle Eastern sounds and jazz.

Listen to the full set performance of the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir at Newport Folk on the NPR Music website.