Wednesday, January 02, 2019

London Sacred Harp at Café Oto

Streams of people with cold, cross, January faces were flooding off the tube this evening. By the time I'd got to Camden, I almost turned back and accepted a winter night's fate of TV and central heating (didn't have that till I was 38 years old, and I've never stopped appreciating it!).
There was a swarm of delivery mopeds at the back of Café Oto: it's a secret meeting place where Deliveroos can play Techno to each other and swoop about in small circles in their black shiny bike gear to emphasise their Bro conversations; a tiny secret community.

Round the corner, the caff was warm inside; people queued up at the bar politely.
Ginger beer spilled into my Christmas purse, and it's only January.
Without any fuss, the London Sacred Harp singers took to their chairs, four sides of a square. A bearded chap welcomed us and explained that they are a singing community, not a choir, so they are not used to singing to an audience. He asked us not to clap until the end of the first half.
Almost like a game of tag, a name was announced, and after that another name. Each time, a different member of the group got up, cited a number from the Sacred Harp hymnal, and a male group member sang the notes of the separate parts so that everyone could pitch. Every tune ran round once with a Fa-Sol-La-Mi version, followed by a couple of verses with words. Some people conducted with their arms, others concentrated hard on their books.

With close on forty people's voices, this was an incredible sound: loud, crisp, tightly within the beat (I got how they pitched, but how did they pulse?), harsh in places (that's the sound; untrained voices singing open throated at maximum volume), and so generous-spirited that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This is a multi-faith and no-faith group of people who sing their hearts out acapella, without any technology is sight; this is the music we will hear at the end of the world. I definitely never thought I'd hear it in Hackney: it originated in England in the 18th Century and made its way to brush arbor meetings in the Deep South of the USA, but apparently it's making a renaissance. Contemporary shape note singing is about singing for the sake of singing. It's a bit like an igloo: everything is targeted towards warming the middle, not outwards to the audience, although we didn't feel excluded in any way. Gradually, you could identify different singing voices in the mix, and you could see that some of the people leading some of the songs were extremely talented musicians.

After the break (and some very enthusiastic applause) we were given song sheets and told how to interpret the notes, and we too took part in the singing community.
What a lovely evening, and what a great way to start the year off.

This is from Youtube: it's another rare gig they did at the Union Chapel in 2017. You'll get an idea of the sound, which I've only heard on ancient recordings before:

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