André J Thomas: The Gospel of Gospel Music

One of the world’s greatest experts in choral and American gospel music, André J Thomas, spoke to James Drury about his passion for this hugely influential genre as he prepares for a celebration of its variety on Sunday 29 May at the Barbican, with the LSO and the massed voices of choirs from across London, including the London Community Gospel Choir, British Gospel Arts Choir and London Symphony Chorus.

Talking with André J Thomas about gospel music is a delight. The conductor, composer, music professor and author’s lifelong passion for this globally-influential music is profound, and he shares his knowledge with joy and generosity. He’ll be spreading the word about the religious music when he conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and voices of the London Symphony Chorus and gospel and community choirs for Lift Every Voice this month

Thomas says despite its worldwide renown, some misunderstandings about what constitutes gospel persist, particularly outside the US. ‘For instance, there are some choirs that do rhythm and blues and call it gospel. But that’s a secular form of music. Gospel is about spreading the good news; it’s religious music.’ He says he hopes this concert will be an accessible way into discovering the deep history of Black music in America and its subsequent global spread. 

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Choirs singing in the Gospel Celebration in March 2020.

‘Gospel started with the songs of the slaves, which are called spirituals and are often focussed on Old Testament stories such as Moses leading the slaves out of Egypt,’ he explains. ‘Then a second type of spiritual was emerged, which was about Jesus; the third was about personal experience – you can tell those ones because they’re very individualised – for example, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Steal Away to Jesus

Symphonic gospel came about because the music needed to be shared in a larger form and outside of a church setting. Symphonic gospel music is called that simply because it involves the orchestra. This brings gospel music to a wider market of people rather than in the church only. It started in America at colleges and universities and then became regular repertoire for choral ensembles and was written so people who were not in the form could now participate.’ 

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The conductor and Professor of Choral Music Education at Florida State University says he appreciates when people tell him gospel music speaks to them. ‘What that says is: do you have to be Black for it to speak to you? Music is a common language – we don’t have to become Black to approach this music, but we have to understand the Black experience. We have to understand that it is personal, it’s in your face, it’s to you, God and the people that you’re ministering to. You have to understand that. When you sing this music, you’ve got to communicate. It’s about ministering to the soul.’ 

Interview by James Drury, originally published in the Barbican Guide.

Sunday 29 May 7pm, Barbican

André J Thomas unites the voices of gospel and community choirs from across London in a celebration of African-American gospel, spiritual and classical music to nourish the soul.   

arr Roland Carter Lift Every Voice and Sing
arr Nathaniel Dett Ave Maria
arr André J Thomas I’ve Just Come From the Fountain
arr Mark Butler Signs of the Judgement
Adolphus Hailstork I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes
arr André J Thomas Beautiful City
Joseph Joubert Choo, Choo Joubert
Trad Get on Board Little Children
Raymond Wise Shine the Light
Kurt Lykes Hallowed Be Thy Name
Brandon Boyd Sign Me Up
arr André J Thomas Total Praise
Raymond Wise I’ve Got a Robe

André J Thomas conductor
NaGuanda Nobles soprano
Albert Lee tenor
Brandon Boyd piano
London Community Gospel Choir
British Gospel Arts Choir
London Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey chorus director
LSO Community Choir
LSO Discovery Choirs
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £35 £24 £18 £15
+ £3 online booking fee


Discounts: £10 Wildcard tickets

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