76 Trombones in the Big Paradise

Just when it seems like there's nothing new under the sun in American vernacular music, along comes living proof that there is. A couple years ago, Arhoolie Records introduced the sacred steel guitar players of the black, Pentecostal, House of God, who play gospel music on the lap steel, an instrument considered obsolete for several decades. Now, in Saints' Paradise, Smithsonian Folkways offers the first nationally-distributed release of shout trombone bands from the black, Pentecostal, United House of Prayer for All People. These bands play gospel music on trombones, lots and lots of trombones. A typical shout band gets percussion from a snare or bass drum and/or cymbals, with the bassline coming from a tuba or sousaphone. There might be a French horn or sax for color, but the rest of the instrumentation consists of anywhere from five to 20 trombones. And of course, the music isn't really new; it's been evolving in splendid isolation for most of this century.

The United House of Prayer was launched in Massachusetts in 1919, amidst the Holiness Revival still sweeping the nation, by Marcelino Manoel daGraca (Charles Manuel Grace), who'd emigrated from the Cape Verde island of Brava in 1903. Today, while the mother church is in Washington, D.C., the HOP remains strongest in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas' Tidewater-Piedmont region. But one of its most prestigious churches is at 125th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, where Eddie Babb, who's become the music's grand old man, leads the McCollough Sons of Thunder shout band.

Though clearly related to southern brass bands, shout bands are just as clearly separate from that tradition; it's the difference between partying and praying. The earliest shout bands featured jazzlike lineups of piano, drums, washboard, and tambourine in addition to horns. "Sweet Daddy Grace," as he became known, was guided by Psalm 150 ("Praise ye the lord. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet") in introducing brass and reed instruments into the church. By the early 1960s, the trombone dominated, and shout bands began arranging their material like the era's spectacular gospel quartets; they open with dirgelike unison passages that build to the "drive," when the background players repeat a single chord or phrase over and over, faster and faster, the way a vocal quartet goes bom-bom-bom. The lead players abandon the melody to improvise on top of this like Claude Jeter screaming atop the Swan Silvertones, or Rebert Harris fronting the Soul Stirrers. This is the section that brings the congregation to "one accord," causing worshipers to speak in tongues as the Holy Ghost enters them, which in turn inspires the musicians to take it up another notch.

Shout musicians usually start playing in their early teens, and drop out in their thirties, often handing their instrument down to their sons. Very rarely do they play outside the church. They are amateurs, playing only for "soul salvation," and oh, do they make a joyful noise. In the church, they play off or behind the preacher virtually nonstop through the whole service (which can last most of a day). Sometimes the band is in the background, embellishing the preacher's sermon like a jazz group improvising behind a singer; then the preacher will back off for a while, letting the band take over while he shouts and cries around the music. The recordings on Saints' Paradise, made during the Folk Masters concerts at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in 1990 and at The Barns of Wolf Trap (outside D.C.) between 1993 and 1996, can't do that because the preacher's not there. But the bands shout, scream, and wail with remarkable diversity, confirming once again the trombone's status as the instrument most like the human voice. This CD features Babb, George Holland, and Norvus Miller--the elderly "Three Stars of the Kingdom." Babb's huge, hard-driving Sons of Thunder start slow on his original "Sweet," then move into multiple call-and-response leads over a full cushion of background trombones before the leader segues into "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" with his own mesmerizing solo. George Holland and the Happyland Band are a softer and more meditative group that uses trumpet to introduce "Won't It Be Sad?" before turning "America the Beautiful" into a prayer and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" into a jazz stomp. Norvus Miller and the Kings of Harmony are the smoothest of the three, but Miller also leads a "Revelation and Improvisation" jam with Babb and Holland that blows away everything else here in its easy, assured conviction. Babb is the only one of the three still alive today.

Saints' Paradise also includes two "copy bands," Madison's Lively Stones and Cedric Mangum and the Clouds of Heaven, whose music is younger and more modern, but who still honor the Three Stars by updating their arrangements and repertoires. Plus the Madison Prayer Band, a magnetically raw, female vocal group that slips into tongues right there onstage in "Shouting Time." As with the Three Stars, when they hit their stride all heaven breaks loose.

 
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