The session begins with a group prayer that closes with murmurs of “Amen!” It’s one more of countless weekly rehearsals for the Inspirational Sounds Gospel Choir. The local musical group has been at it for more than 50 years. And clearly, the dozen-plus participants in tonight’s practice session have brought a certain spirit into the room.
A series of simple voice warm-ups segues into slow-simmering, gospel-flavored soul. Musical expressions start heating up. Maracas chatter, a tambourine snaps. Chris Stubbs, the music director, blurts out instructions and encouragement between organ flourishes. Drummer Kenny Reed sends beats crackling across the church hall. Front and center, choir director Kathy Vrzak’s cornrow beads dance like scaled notes as she leads singers through a series of call-and-response lyrics punctuating several choir favorites. By the time the group launches into “Army of the Lord,” bodies are swaying, feet are shuffling, and arms are waving to the rafters as moans, groans, and hallelujahs rain down hard.
Members of the Sounds tell varied stories about how they found their way into the congregation of black gospel music fans. Some were raised under the influence of churches in the Deep South, and most are old enough to have come through the civil rights movement of the 1960s—some of them participated in it. But the fact is, the majority of the choir’s singers are white, and many hail from Oregon. They do, however, have strong beliefs about God, the costs of racism, and the rewards of participating in a choir that generously shares race-influenced cultural riches with the community.
If you ask members of Inspirational Sounds what most appeals to them about the group’s musical repertoire, you’ll elicit a variety of responses. “It’s infectious,” says one. “It’s alive!” enthuses another. “It’s pure joy,” adds a third, “but you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it.”
“And it’s the only place in America,” jokes one of the group elders, “where white people are able to keep time clapping their hands in rhythm.”
Story and photos by Mikael Krummel