York gospel music Professor Karen Burke leads the Toronto Mass Choir to Poland

Born out of African-American churches in the early 20th century, gospel music has continued to spread, finding audiences well beyond its roots. Last month, a group of York musicians experienced first-hand gospel’s burgeoning growth overseas in a country not usually associated with the genre.

Six York students and two alumni accompanied the Juno Award-winning Toronto Mass Choir (TMC) on a 10-city tour in Poland. From May 7 to 21, they gave 13 performances and a workshop. The tour was led by the TMC’s founding director, York University music Professor Karen Burke, who is also the founding director of the York University Gospel Choir.

Right: The Toronto Mass Choir gets ready for a performance in Poland

The TMC’s tour was organized by Gospel Joy, a Polish choral ensemble that regularly invites conductors from across North America to lead workshops in Poland to introduce the public to gospel music. The workshops culminate in a massed choir performance. Attendance is impressive. Burke recently received a report stating that more than 1,000 people attended a workshop, with hundreds more attending the concert following.

"Gospel music is a relatively new genre in Poland," said Burke. "Its growing popularity is in part due to Gospel Joy spreading the word and developing a devoted following of fans across the country."

Left: Karen Burke

Burke visited Poland in October 2006 and April 2007 as a guest conductor on invitation of Gospel Joy. She gave a series of workshops in which she taught about 10 songs, including some of her own compositions. Her visits were so successful that she was invited to return with her own choir for a concert tour this year.

Among the York students on the TMC tour were Temeka Williams, a second-year music major specializing in jazz vocals, and Jesse Feyen, who is currently pursuing doctoral studies in music. "Gospel may be new to Polish audiences, but everyone wants more of it," said Williams. "We always sang to sold-out houses. Every seat was taken, but people barely sat down – they were up dancing and clapping with the music the whole time! At the end of each concert we were called back on stage for encore after encore."

Feyen – who wrote his master’s thesis on the Toronto Mass Choir in 2007 – has been the accompanist for the York University Gospel Choir for the past three years, but on this trip he played guitar in the TMC band.

Right: Jesse Feyen

"Sometimes we would even see nuns dancing on church pews," said Feyen. "On one occasion, we played in a very large, beautiful cathedral, but despite its size, there were three times as many people as there were seats, with people pressing up against my back as I was playing. I would estimate that over 10,000 people heard us in all our concerts combined."

Why, in his scholarly opinion, is gospel so hot in Poland?

"While it’s still something of a mystery to me, I think it’s due to the country’s unique political, cultural and social climate," said Feyen." Until 1989, the Communist regime limited the people’s access to popular music and they’re excited to hear this different genre. Gospel music also represents a type of evangelical and expressive Christianity that is unfamiliar and exciting to the predominantly Catholic Polish people."

"One of the amazing things about this trip in particular is the special bond Toronto Mass Choir formed with Gospel Joy," said Burke. "They opened for us at every concert. It was their first tour, which made all sorts of important connections for them. They also learned a lot about how to perform. Watching the movie Sister Act was the closest they’d ever come to a Black gospel choir. They observed things we take for granted in our shows and adopted it for themselves."

"We also performed Caribbean Gospel, including songs from our 2007 CD Going Home, which was a new experience for them," said Burke. "Polish people have heard reggae and calypso music before, but never gospel music in those styles. Everyone kept asking to hear the ‘Jamaica’ songs!"

Left: Temeka Williams (left) with two members of the Toronto Mass Choir

"TMC is like no other group I’ve performed with," said Williams. "It’s not just a choir to the members, it’s not just music to the band, and I don’t think it ever comes across as being just another performance to the audience. There are mothers and children, brothers and sisters and many friends in this group, and once you’ve been to one rehearsal you feel the love. It’s amazing that all these people would come together and voluntarily make music this good. TMC is definitely in my future!"

Founded by Burke in 1988, the TMC features 30 voices plus a four-piece band. They have six CDs to their credit including the Juno Award-winning Instrument of Praise. They have toured Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Europe, with performances at countless church services, festivals, award shows and special venues including Ottawa Bluesfest, the Toronto Jazz Festival, Roy Thomson Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and many more. The choir has also appeared with well-known gospel singers such as Tramaine Hawkins, Alvin Slaughter, Take 6 and Jessy Dixon.