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Gospel Notes Productions
Black Gospel Music in the Netherlands
Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D.
Laura Boulton Professor Emerita of Ethnomusicology
Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology
Founding Director (1991-2013), Archives of African American Music and Culture
Indiana University-Bloomington, USA
While teaching at Utrecht University in the Netherlands Spring 1998, I made an amazing discovery—four Dutch choirs that specialized in Black American Gospel music. Edith Casteleyn, the Euro-Dutch director of the choirs uses this term to distinguish the repertoire and style of her choirs from that of others who self-identify as “gospel choirs.” She emphatically states that, although some Dutch choirs call themselves gospel choirs, they “don’t sing the ‘real thing.’ They sang Christian music, and that is not the same as Black American gospel music.”
Casteleyn, a classically trained pianist, is very clear on the distinction between Christian music and gospel music, the latter synonymous with Black gospel choirs in the United States. After all, she spent fourteen years learning gospel from the source—the Black church and African American gospel greats. Her training began in 1980 in the chapel on the American side of the Royal Netherlands Air Force base in Soesterberg, where the Black gospel service was held every Sunday afternoon. Casteleyn joined the congregation and remained an active member until the American side of the base closed in 1994. Over the fourteen years, she immersed herself in the Black gospel tradition by singing, serving as pianist, director of the youth choir, and finally the official director of the Soesterberg gospel choir working on contract awarded by the United States Air Force Base. As the official choral director, Casteleyn attended religious music workshops offered through the military in Germany. During these workshops, she studied gospel piano styles, choral directing, arranging, and black religious music history under renowned gospel music performers such as Richard Smallwood.
Beginning in 1990 and at the request of local Dutch community members, Casteleyn, with members of the Soesterberg gospel choir, began conducting workshops in various Dutch communities on African American gospel music. From these workshops evolved Dutch community gospel choirs in the four regions of the Netherlands. The first one, The Friendship Gospel Choir was organized in in 1991 near the Air Force in Soest, followed by Lifeline Gospel Choir in 1997 in Katwijk and several others. The most recent choir, Alive, was formed in 2008 in Nieuwegein. In addition, Casteleyn directs her own choir, Rainbow Gospel Singers. Casteleyn has successfully transplanted the entire black gospel music matrix into Dutch social and cultural spaces. During weekly rehearsals, she transforms these spaces into a Black religious setting by replicating the ritualized components of this tradition. She, for example, begins rehearsals with a prayer followed by a medley of praise songs then a 2 ½ hour rigorous rehearsal using the oral tradition, which concludes with a prayer. The last rehearsal of the season is preceded by a potluck dinner, an unknown concept in the mainstream of Dutch society.
The choirs perform throughout the Netherlands and in other European countries, have twice toured the United States. Casteleyn has conducted workshops on Black gospel music in the States, all over Europe and in various African countries.
Although I officially concluded my fifteen year study of Casteleyn and the choirs during summer 2013, I added to this research in May 2015 when Casteleyn and her Thy Mentioned Gospel Choir toured Louisiana, performing in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Phoenix. My study of Casteleyn and the choirs she directed has been long-term by design. I wanted to follow new developments that might have occurred over time related to the choirs’ mission, membership, organizational structure, rehearsals, performances, and reception, etc. From a cultural perspective, I wanted to understand how Casteleyn negotiated differences in the religious and cultural values between African American and Dutch societies, and the way these differences impacted on the teaching, performance, and reception of gospel music in this new context—the Netherlands. For example, reportedly less than 40 percent of the Euro-Dutch population professes to be Christians or believers. The majority of those do not affiliate with any religious institution. The choirs are microcosms of Dutch society. Related, the long standing cultural values imposed by the Dutch Reform Church discourage the public display of emotion. In contrast, gospel choirs in the United States are made up of believers and church-goers. The expression of emotions is encouraged rather than suppressed in Black culture. Through perseverance, Casteleyn has managed to negotiate many of these and other challenges, including language, in ways that preserve the fundamental integrity of the Black gospel music tradition.
An unexpected find during my research was archival collections that chronicled Casteleyn’s fourteen year participation in the African American gospel choir on the military base, and the complete history of three of the choirs, Friendship, Lifeline and Alive. These materials are extensive and include: photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, PR material, posters, flyers, correspondence, video recordings of workshops and performances, CD recordings, awards, and business records, etc. Casteleyn and the choirs have donated these materials to the Archives of African American Music and Culture (AAAMC) at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA. Many of the print document documents have been translated in English. These materials combined with my many hours of video-taped rehearsals and performances provide a comprehensive examination of Black gospel music in a global context.
Casteleyn’s life story and the uniqueness of her work in presenting and preserving Black American gospel music in the Netherlands, throughout Europe and beyond, deserves wide-spread recognition. Therefore, Casteleyn and the Dutch choirs she directs will be included in the opening exhibit for the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee. The museum is scheduled to open in summer 2018 ( http://nmaam.org/ ) In addition I will write a book on Casteleyn and the choirs, drawing from the many interviews I have conducted with her and the choirs, attendees at the choirs’ concerts (in the Netherlands and USA) as well as the archival collections described above. This book will be published by the University of Illinois Press.
The globalization of Black American music is area of interest among academics and the general public. Casteleyn’s story is about the global flow, preservation, popularity, and impact of gospel music in new contexts. In the coming years, her life story and the uniqueness of her work undoubtedly will be referenced in many studies on the globalization of Black American gospel music and the broader Black American musical tradition in general.
In mei 2017 organiseer ik met KRAS REIZEN een reis naar NEW ORLEANS, de bakermat van Gospel en Soul. Deze reis gaat onder de naam “THY MENTION GOSPEL CHOIR”. Dit samengestelde koor van de leden van Friendship Gospel Choir, Life Line Gospel Choir, Alive Gospel Choir en The Rainbow Gospel Singers is ook opengesteld voor mensen die niet zingen bij genoemde koren. Er is bij alle koren een speciaal projectkoor samengesteld zodat iedereen mee kan zingen in de Afro-Amerikaanse kerken.
Afgelopen mei was ik in New Orleans en Baton Rouge voor optredens in de Afro-Amerikaanse kerken en wat een feest was het daar. We zijn al eerder op reis geweest naar Los Angelos -California, Atlanta-Georgia en Charlotte – North Carolina, maar ik mag wel zeggen: Dit overtreft alles ! Wat een gastvrije mensen in Louisiana en het is de bakermat van de muziek. Ik vond het een geweldig feest om daar te zijn, het is bijna niet uit te leggen, je moet het gewoon meemaken.
Vertrekdatum woensdag, 24 mei 2017 (de dag voor Hemelvaart) en we komen op donderdag, 1 juni 2017 weer aan op Schiphol. Voor alle informatie klik op de volgende link: USA reis Thy Mention Gospel Choir.