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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » August 2, 2010
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Uplifting Gospel Experience
August 2, 2010   
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To mark U.S. Independence Day July 4, American gospel musicians Oscar Williams Jr. and Perfected Praise came to Warsaw to sing at the U.S. ambassador’s residence and the Warsaw Academy of Music, before playing concerts in Kielce and Cracow. The band is touring Europe and Lebanon as part of the Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program. Hilary Heuler speaks to Oscar Williams, Thelma Guyton and Tracy Smith in Warsaw.

Gospel music plays an important role in America’s musical heritage. Can you explain what it’s about, and what makes it so distinctly American?
Oscar Williams: For me, gospel music has always been music of good news. It’s spiritually-based music that also inspires. It has rich roots in American music, being a combination of so many other types of music—jazz, blues, rock and roll, all these elements have their fundamental base in gospel music.

Thelma Guyton: As for how it became American music, a man by the name of Thomas Dorsey started gospel music in the 1920s. He was a jazz pianist in Chicago who simply changed his message, and now we have gospel music. It began right in America.

Where else have you performed, and what have been your experiences with performing abroad?
Tracy Smith: We’ve traveled to Italy, the Czech Republic, Spain, Amsterdam, Jamaica, Switzerland, Germany, Lebanon, Cyprus, and now Poland. Our response from the different cultures has been very positive. Even though it’s been new to some of them, they’ve been very receptive, and it has made our job easier. Sometimes we get a little nervous about introducing gospel music to different cultures, but because it’s in our hearts and it’s a part of who we are, it comes out. I think it’s a heart-to-heart thing—people feel the heart, and so it reaches the heart. That really makes it fun.

Oscar Williams: One of the things the MC said last night at the close of our concert was that the people of Poland put their hearts in a jar, and brought them with them to receive our music from us. It was a very touching thing that he said.

We did a workshop in Lebanon with a professional choir, and I asked them what they thought about gospel music. None of them raised their hands, because they just didn’t know what it was. Usually audiences say they have no idea. But then I ask them to describe their music, the elements of their music, what characteristics make their music theirs. We list them, and then I list the characteristics of gospel music so they can see that there are similarities in rhythm, in text, in tone, in the type of music that is done. The only thing that really separates gospel music from other types of music is our message, which is a spiritually uplifting, inspiring message. At the core it is music about God, who lifts us up, who loves us and who inspires us.

What brought you to Poland, and what do you think of it so far?
Oscar Williams: The U.S. State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center is putting on this program, Rhythm Road, which is the reason we are here. They set up these tours through the U.S. embassies. After a long and arduous audition process, ten bands were selected out of 132 applicants, and we are all being sent to different parts of the world to expose these cultures to American music.

Thelma Guyton: So far it’s so great. I’ve been able to get out and go walking in the park, and I’ve found the people to be very friendly overall. Even at the performance last night, they were very receptive, very welcoming. They’ve been able to help when we need help, even when we’re on the streets wandering around like lost foreigners. We are enjoying it here.
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