“We believe that God can be praised in any language, and any style,” Lennox O. Royer, a singer, bandleader, and reverend, says with a heavy Caribbean accent and a smile. His group, the Direct Messengers Band, doesn’t fit any iconic notion of black gospel: The ensemble wear gaudy matching red blazers that make them look like Avis Rent A Car trainees, the songs hold a pronounced island inflection, and the drummer—well, it’s a good thing no one in the crowd wants to enforce child labor laws.
This scene a few weeks ago typifies the “Sounds of Praise” gospel brunch, a regular series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which displays the full, fascinating range of sacred music heard in Brooklyn, nicknamed “the City of Churches” in the 19th century, when it was said to hold more churches per square foot than any other place. BAM even sweetens the offering with a soul food buffet, all the better to entice the famously and proudly profane residents of New York, who can now enjoy the divine pleasure of gospel without fearing they’ll be lectured, scolded, evangelized, or otherwise sold bottles of brimstone.
“Even the most godless of my friends love the music,” says Limor Tomer, who curates the series, as well as the Thursday-to-Sunday “BAMcafé Live” schedule. Purposefully timed to begin just as church lets out, the shows draw shouters and hand-clappers in Sunday-best bonnets, as well as Park Slope families making the anthropological rounds. Has Tomer seen anyone in a yarmulke? “Mmm, no, but Philip Glass is a regular,” she notes.
“Sounds of Praise” represents “a major commitment to build BAM as a home for gospel,” Tomer says. Though New York is a center of many different art forms, it’s “not even on the map as a town for gospel music”—which is ironic, because most American gospel music comes from Brooklyn, she explains. Yet there’s no full-time New York radio station playing gospel, and no venue that regularly books shows. “There’s more gospel music in Ann Arbor.”
The program she’s assembled is “definitely diverse and definitely unconventional.” She scouts for talent by visiting different Brooklyn houses of worship, often two per Sunday. “Outside of Jesus, I’m the Jew who has spent the most time in church,” jokes Tomer, who was born in Israel. “Sounds of Praise” caters to believers who want a double serving of the Savior on Sundays, as well as sinners “who would never find themselves in a church” but want to experience gospel without “getting into a car service and going to East New York.” Both groups can smile at one another while waiting in line for chicken and cornbread.
This week: Jamaican-born Marlon “Brother Paul” Anderson, of the Church of God of Prophecy, and his band. Sunday at 2, BAMcafé, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-4139, www.bam.org. Admission is $20, which includes music, buffet, tax, and tip ($15 for children six to 12, and free for children five and younger).