Alexandria Church Embraces Unusual Musical Tradition (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Alexandria Church Embraces Unusual Musical Tradition

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll turn now to several stories about our regions musical traditions. In just a bit we'll visit the tiny Virginia town that's home to what may be the world' longest blue grass concert series. But first, Emily Berman brings us a story about religious music, specifically African American religious music. A number of African-American congregations in our region are known for their music. Maybe you've heard members of The United House of Prayer For All People playing outside the Verizon Center. Or perhaps you've heard of Keith Dominion Church on Kansas Avenue Northwest, where steel guitars figure heavily in prayer.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:35
But in the heart of old town Alexandria you'll find a lesser-known congregation, one that makes its musical mark a capella. The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as the oldest African-American congregation that adhering to the tenets of Judaism. Members meet on Saturdays in a small white church they call Tabernacle 16, since it was the 16th tabernacle in the church's founding state of Virginia. Emily Berman takes us inside Tabernacle 16 for a Sabbath service to learn more about the congregation's special musical tradition.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:01:07
The service here at The Church of God and Saints of Christ doesn't start for 20 minutes, but the choir is already going through one heck of a warm up.

MR. AARON CAREY

00:01:28
There is a certain harmonic structure to our music. And it's a sound that is known by us and it was given to us. That's the only way that I can explain it really.

BERMAN

00:01:40
Elder Aaron Carey is the general chorister of the church. In keeping with ancient Jewish custom, there are no instruments in the prayer service, just voices.

CAREY

00:01:51
We have no notation or anything that we sing by. It's never -- it has never been written down. It's really from mouth to ear.

BERMAN

00:01:58
Since the church began in 1896, the songs have been passed down, bar by bar, by leaders like Elder Carey. Though much of the terminology is similar to Christian faiths, the group views Jesus as a Prophet and not the son of God. They congregate around an arc and a Torah scroll, and recite many traditional Jewish prayers, though mainly in English, not Hebrew. Professor Kip Lornell teaches courses about black American religious music at George Washington University.

MR. KIP LORNELL

00:02:29
They way that new songs are brought into the tabernacles is people dream them, which I found fascinating. So these songs come to people in visions and dreams, they are then brought to their annual gathering down in Suffolk.

BERMAN

00:02:45
Which happens during Passover, in the spring, when the more than 40 tabernacles from all around the U.S. get together.

LORNELL

00:02:51
They're kind of presented to a larger audience, and if are seen with favor, they start to be sung in the various tabernacles. And ultimately, if they prove to be popular enough they will end up in the hymnal.

BERMAN

00:03:09
The song writing is entirely democratic. Everyone in the congregation is encouraged to create songs, as long as they lyrics are based on the Torah or scripture.

CAREY

00:03:19
Anything that comes up, you know, we know that it's divinely given. And we are honored to try to learn these songs.

BERMAN

00:03:26
Most songs are call and response, with very few solos. And they are all in at least four-part harmony. The service today is more than 90 minutes, almost entirely song.

LORNELL

00:03:40
It is the most musical service that I can think of, of any church I've ever been to. And I've been to a wide variety of black American churches and then mainstream white Protestant churches.

BERMAN

00:03:50
Just about everyone in the congregation joins in the four-part harmonies, even the children. And no one has a hymnal. The only way to tell who's in the choir and who's not is by what they're wearing. Male choir members wear brown suits with long coats and a kippa, or head covering. The women wear baby blue silk shirts and long brown skirts, with a baby blue hair ribbon. The brown and blue are symbolic, says the Tabernacle's Pastor James Parker, of the meeting of earth and sky, of human and divine.

PASTOR JAMES PARKER

00:04:25
With everyone wearing the same uniform, then we're not divided by economic status. We're not divided by educational degrees or anything like that. We truly are brothers and sisters of God together.

BERMAN

00:04:39
Most of the Tabernacle's 100 or so members have been part of the congregation their whole lives, and remember a time when services lasted all day long.

LORNELL

00:04:49
If the spirit caught you, you continued to sing that song as long as the spirit was moving you. In that regard it's like a go-go performance. It lasts as long as it needs to last, which is unlike the Lutheran and Methodist churches I've been to, 11:55 the sermons done, a song or two and you're finishing. And you know you're done by 12:00. That is not going to happen here.

BERMAN

00:05:22
Elements of a traditional Jewish service combine with the sounds of 19th century spirituals, says Lornell, to create this church's simple, yet powerful sound.

BERMAN

00:05:42
Here in Washington, Lornell says, there really isn't anything like this church, musically, culturally or spiritually. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

00:05:58
You can find more about the musical traditions at Tabernacle 16, and see photos of the service Emily attended on our website, metroconnection.org.
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