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MOBO Interview | Karen Gibson

On Sunday 5th October 2014, Millions of BBC viewers tuned in to the FA Cup and SuperBowl equivalent of Gospel Choir Competitions in the UK. Several highly talented choirs participated and battled for the prize in front of a passionate crowd at the Hackney Empire, under the watchful eye of an X-Factor-like judges panel.

One choir triumphed, lead by one of Britain’s leading Gospel Choir leaders…..none other than the beautiful and inimitable Karen ‘Superwoman’ Gibson.

 

The competition was tough and the crowd were passionate, how did you cope with the pressure?

What really helped is that we didn’t know what the competition was like at all! We were kept backstage whilst the other choirs were on stage, which looking back, might have been a blessing in disguise – we may well have been terrified, otherwise!

You’re right about the crowd being passionate. After our first song, the audience clapped so hard and for so long, that I actually thought the BBC stage manager had instructed them to cheer enthusiastically. Some of the choir members were in tears after, for the sheer joy of that moment.

Gospel choirs are beginning to emerge in the MOBO nomination categories...was this inevitable?

I’m not sure that anything is inevitable, but I don’t think that this is before it’s time. Gospel music, encountered by many for the first time through gospel choir singing, has played such an important part in people’s musical discovery and development.  Folks of all races groups, ages, classes and from countless countries have been enriched and inspired by the joy of gospel. The influence of gospel on contemporary music has been well documented. It’s only right that it’s significance to the musical heritage of this country is acknowledged.

Tony Puleston, one of your very impressive lead singers is an architectural designer. Do you encourage people from all areas of the community to join, or just Christians?

Lewes Sings Gospel from East Sussex is a non-auditioned community choir, and is for any-one and everyone. Every-one is welcomed when they come. Many who come to gospel for the first time are really scared that they won’t get it, or that they won’t fit in, or that they’re not authentic enough, but the really important thing about gospel music is it’s inclusivity. This is its very nature and essence – it’s for everybody.

The judges were Mica Paris, Carrie Grant and Muyiwa. Who gave you the Simon Cowell treatment?

None of them, thankfully! They were all really gracious and complimentary with what they said, which was a huge relief for me.

Some of the songs from the competitors were Spirituals, others were Kirk Franklin-like urban/RnB arrangements....please comment. 

I thought that the mix of songs really demonstrated the diversity that is gospel music. As well as spirituals and RnB being represented, there were gospel anthems and even some self-penned songs. The variation of gospel music is great – there is something for everyone.

Can anyone sing Gospel or is there a technique?

I suppose that gospel music is associated with a certain sound, and certainly, there are techniques to approximate that sound… However, I would like to say yes, anyone can sing gospel. The meaning of the word gospel is ‘good news’.  The goodness, joy, inspiration and life inherent in the music is for every soul that wishes to sing it or listen to it.

MOBO, the Book British Black Gospel and the BBC are raising the profile of Gospel music in Britain...is the Nation ready, or is it all too American?

Yes, we are ready and waiting for it! The developments that you describe are simply a reflection of what has been happening, albeit in a somewhat ‘underground’ fashion, for a long time. Gospel choirs are blowing up in schools and in community initiatives, they’re popping up at social functions such as weddings and other events where people want that ‘something’ to make it special. Gospel music is very very popular and people love it when they hear it – and sing it.

As for it being ‘too American’, as with all culture, gospel music adapts and changes to suit the culture where it is found. This country has very many talented gospel song-writers and artists, whose sound and approach to the music is identifiably British. We heard some of them in the competition.

In the movie Sister Act, choir leader Whoopee Goldberg turns around a bunch of tone-deaf and rhythm-challenged no hopers, dresses up as a nun and dodges bullets from really evil villains. Did you share a similar experience when you prepared your choir for the competition?

Haha! I’ve heard the Sister Act comparison before, not so much with this choir, but with a Catholic Girls School that I used to teach in, where the gospel choir won the Songs of Praise Senior Schools competition in 2010, on their first time of trying.

At LSG, however, by the time we entered the competition, we were well past some of the ‘interesting’ issues that we faced when I first started there. We’ve been on a journey together, but it’s been such fun and I’ve learned a lot.

What is the next mission for Karen 'Super Woman' Gibson?

Thank you, Steve! Well I’m still working in schools and doing lots of travelling. This year, this will include a mini-tour of Italy, running courses for choir conductors, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s my intention to begin the same type of course in this country.  I’m also working on putting out some gospel resources and products online in the near future. I’ve had such wonderful experiences doing what I do, I’d just like to see what I’ve experienced and had the pleasure of seeing others experience multiplied.

Author: 

Steve Alexander Smith