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Stirring renditions from a songbook rich in pain, resistance, and hope.
Premiering last Sunday, ‘Amazing Grace’ is the new production from Ovie Okenarhe – the founder of music events company Crazy Sexy Coool. Okenarhe currently hosts the Gospel Blues series fortnightly at Pizza Express High Holborn, a combination of secular and spiritual music led by the charismatic Daniel Thomas. He also hosts the Live Unplugged Series at the Toulouse Lautrec in South London.
‘Amazing Grace’ follows a similar format to both shows: three vocalists singing solo and in unison. What makes this production different is that the repertoire is taken almost entirely from the Negro spiritual songbook, with the set slowly advancing into more traditional gospel, as well as blues.
With a songbook so rich in historical context and spiritual intensity, Okenarhe has enlisted three church-grown vocalists to render the material. There is the proudly voluptuous Samantha Antoinette Smith, who has spent over two decades with the prestigious London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC). She is joined by Sarah Brown, a former Incognito vocalist who also has toured with Duran Duran, Roxy Music, and Simple Minds. The self-effacing vocal coach Steve Denton completes the line-up of singers, with narration overlayed by British actor Neil Reidman. With just piano accompaniment from Musical Director Luke Smith, the focus is entirely on the voices and storytelling.
The set began with a beautifully harmonised rendition of ‘Wade in the Water’ – an instruction to help fugitive slaves avoid capture. It is arguably one of the more well-known spirituals (recorded by the likes of the Staple Singers, Marlena Shaw, and Eva Cassidy).
Samantha Antoinette has gospel dripping from every pore. Her first solo number ‘Go Down Moses’ – in which the plight of the Israelites mirrors that of the African-American slave – was searing. ‘Let my people go,’ she sang – a finger pointed to sky as she hit the final note in a crying, pleading tone.
Sarah Brown radiates enigma when she performs. In contrast to Smith’s piercing wail, Brown’s tone is thick and almost operatic. Her rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ – a metaphor for the forced estrangement of the African American slave from the motherland – was heavy and dense. With each repetition of the chorus, she communicated a desperate longing and yearning that became almost oppressive in its intensity. In the second set, veering into blues, she interpreted Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Didn’t It Rain’ – strutting to Luke Smith’s piano, and conjuring the energy of a full band.
It would be a gross simplification to reduce the Negro spiritual songbook to one solely of pain and oppression. Resistance, hope, and aspiration permeates the material too. ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ exemplified this, led movingly by Steve Denton and with harmonies from Smith and Brown. Craig Jenkins from Vulture contends that spirituals like these promising peace in the afterlife were also quietly subversive, ‘[doubling] as a rejection of the terrible circumstances of the present’.
Moving into more contemporary gospel and soul, a rendition of Bill Withers’ ‘Lean On Me’ and Aretha Franklin’s gospel version of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ closed the set. The production in its embryonic form has room to grow and develop, but it seems Okenarhe has curated something quite powerful.
Check out the whole review here