As pedestrians walked along the river Seine in Paris on a recent balmy Sunday, they could hear soaring music coming from a boat moored quayside in the Bercy neighborhood.
The curious who crossed the metal gangplank to peek inside the vessel saw an energetic singer and a pianist, both dressed in white, and a bass player and saxophonist dressed in black. The quartet were performers at a “Gospel brunch,” the latest example of the popularity of gospel music in France.
“Gospel used to be king here in the 1990s and it’s growing again,” said Ricki Stevenson, an African-American businesswoman who is director of company called Black Paris Tours.
Stevenson has lived in Paris for 14 years, and takes local and international travelers on expeditions that show the roots of black culture in the city. The stops include restaurants that showcase gospel music after dinner, and any number of concerts in churches or other venues.
In April, for instance, gospel groups are performing at the American Cathedral and the venerable Eglise Madeleine in the heart of Paris, just two of many concerts around the country.
Usually, most of those attending the shows are French, even when the lyrics are in English.
“Gospel is popular in France because the audience understands the emotion even if they might not understand all the words,” Stevenson told ENInews. “The music is so powerful. It encapsulates all the joy, bitterness and sadness, and audiences can relate to that.”
Gospel fan Sybil de La Renaudiere, a Parisian of American and Caribbean background, has another explanation, however.
“I think the music represents a part of France that the country was intimate with as a colonizer,” she said. “The music of the ‘natives’ always fascinated the French.”
According to musicologists, black spiritual music has its roots in 17th century Africa and was carried to the New World by the enslaved. There it blended with Catholic and Protestant teachings to incorporate Christian imagery, as slaves were prevented from publicly practicing their own religion.
On mainland France, American spiritual music took root after the Second World War, with the presence of U.S. soldiers. Music stars began settling in Paris in the 1970s.
Many singers of modern gospel, which can include elements of jazz, blues and rap, have now made the French capital their home. Linda Lee Hopkins, a renowned vocalist who has performed in stadiums with a 100-voice choir, moved here in 1991. She credits the movie “Sister Act” with popularizing gospel in France.
“That movie made gospel blossom here even though it had been around before,” she told ENInews.
Hopkins said that the French appreciate anything that is a la mode (in fashion). “Ninety percent of the audience don’t understand the meaning of the song. But at some point the Holy Spirit takes over and touches the people, and they’ll come at the end of the concert and say something came over me, but they don’t want you to start talking about religion,” Hopkins said.
She added that producers who are interested in gospel music often don’t want Jesus mentioned. “I tell them, you want the cake without the flour. Of course, some people compromise because they want to work. Everyone has to make a living, but God knows what’s in your heart. I just sing and let the Holy Spirit do its work,” Hopkins said.
Sylvia Howard, a powerful-voiced jazz and blues singer who also performs gospel, says she is “working a lot” in France. But every once in a while, individuals among the audience can be less welcoming than others, she says.
“Prejudice here is alive and well, but even with that, I have far better audiences than not,” she told ENInews. “It depends on where you are in France. Most people are very appreciative, very generous and very open. I’ve lived in different countries, and you’ll always find prejudice somewhere.”
Juju Child, the African-American entrepreneur behind the “gospel brunch boat,” believes that the tradition of the music in France deserves to be continued. “I come from a religious family, and I know that gospel is a powerful remedy for a lot of things,” he said.
In fact, the brunch reprises a still talked-about custom that lasted for several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, when people would put on their Sunday best and head over to a restaurant called Chesterfield for gospel with their pancakes and other culinary delights.
“Ah, that was the place to go,” Stevenson recalled. “It’s gone but the music is still blowing us away.”