REVIEW: “BLESSED AND HIGHLY FAVORED”

Last Sunday….:| *scratches*… umm, “Once upon a time”…..*crumples paper*… UGH! Oh dear! You’re reading already! Sorry, I haven’t said anything of substance yet.  It’s not that I have writer’s block,  I actually have quite a lot to say about this… and I feel empowered with this strong the urge to testify, to share the joy of this experience unlike I have ever felt at “Blessed and Highly Favored” at the National Academy for the Performing Arts last Sunday, 16th January 2011Yet now that I sit, pen to paper… well fingers to keyboard I am almost at a loss for words… In my defense though, how can I even begin to speak when my jaw is still hanging in Awe?

Firstly I’d just like to say off the bat that I seriously dislike an empty stage! As far as I am concerned, once the stage is visible there should be something happening. In understanding myself, I guess I have come to realize that an open curtain betrays the mystery, suspense, and element of surprise that I have come to expect as an audience member in a theatre space. In this instance, it was a bit of an annoyance to endure the musicians trailing on stage, fiddle with their instruments… fiddle again… and fiddle some more. If I were still dictator of the world that curtain would have been closed before the show started.However, from the moment the features singers of Jeunes Agape stepped on that stage, there was a strange energy that immediately filled the auditorium… and to fill NAPA’s Auditorium you really must be emitting some serious voltage! (Actually energy is measures in joules… but you get the idea). Lord Jesus! and when Lois Lewis opened with Helen Bayor’s “Thank you Jesus”…. I was blown away! Dang!!!! What a voice!!! A prime example of what I always say a black woman should sound like! Pardon the stereotype, but that was the sound that I have come to appreciate from any full figured black woman.  Such toe curling, pore raising, adrenaline pumping, powerful  melodies, belting from a personal, soulful space inside her that even resonated within me… and heck.. I ain’t even Christian! Brrrr…. *Shudders* I didn’t even notice the transition from Lois to Xavier Baptiste who’s voice was just as smooth, just as clear… just as powerful… and from such a “smedium” frame too…. Xav! You are Indeed a full figured black woman on the Inside. The Show was definitely off to a great start! … A Start with a Bang! Just as God intended … and that moment shall hence be known as THE BIG BANG!!!

“Such toe curling, pore raising, adrenaline pumping, powerful melodies belting from a personal soulful place”

As Lois continued her Testimony in song, with additional vocals provided by Jeunes Agape and the occasional duet or solo by other members, I couldn’t help but surrender to the fact that Jeunes Agape is indeed the best I have ever witnessed!!!.. Like seriously!! Have you ever gone to a concert of a choir, and the performers, and I say so loosely, have beautiful voices but they look so uncomfortable and fake? They’re almost like deer caught in headlights and afflicted with a serious case of… *Deep breath now*….
I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-singing-or-what-it-is-supposed-to-mean-so-perhaps-if-i-plaster-my-face-with-a-pretentious-smile-I-can-fool-myself-into-thinking-that-my-performance-is-believable-Itis???
None of that was apparent. Jeunes Agape had the voice, the stage presence and executed the choreography with impeccable precision! (Props to Ian and Deon Baptiste for Choreography.) When it comes to performance and theatricality…this group totally gets it! I have never seen such a triple threat in all my days in a choir and witnessing other Choirs perform as well.  There was no complacency among the backup singers.  Like the diva mentality “I don’t do back up so I’m not even going to perform unless I’m soloing!”  Their performance was as Vibrant and Energetic as any headliner should be, (It might as well have been a Red Bull ad) and they maintained that precedent throughout the show.

“It was totally refreshing to see the male of a choir truly perform without fear or inhibition”

I was convinced that every song, every chorus, came from a deep personal place within each of them. Their expressions were so convincing and individual. It looked unrehearsed and genuine and I appreciated that 🙂  It was quite entertaining watching them “ketch the power”… and not Sunday morning TV Church “you’ve been healed” fall down and beat up kinda  power, (sorry.. I think all o that fake), but rather the expression the power that comes with the exhilaration of enjoying what they do. The fellas were seriously high like “Wow!” Especially Kale Ross and Trevon Pascall.  It was totally refreshing to see the males in a choir truly perform without fear or inhibition.

Some of the more memorable performances was in the segment with the younger children. It was positively divine. When they came on stage all in white, they looked so innocent…like Cherubs, but with the voices of full-blown Angels. When they began to sing, and that brief Solo down to the end by Alyssa Hinds in a new arrangement of Destiny’s Child’s “Stand up for love” (Main lead being Sung by Xavier Baptiste)…Sssss!!!… Goosebumps! You won’t believe the rounds of applause they got! This was by no means the little pity clap like “Awww! They sounded good… for children”. Nope! These tykes were really packing some game! They totally deserved that standing ovation! But by then I couldn’t tell. The energy from on Stage long transcended through the proscenium, possessed the patrons and had them up on their feet: dancing, waving rags, singing along as if their names were also on the Marque. Lol! Then of course, there was the occasional Hallelujah that you expect from random people at such events. Ha! Lol! I however, well… This being my First Ever Gospel Concert, and with my Catholic Heritage (It is rare for Catholics to display such abandon… at least as far as I’ve seen back in my day) was taken a back by this phenomenon. Was this normal? Having been to Queens Hall to patronize other Choirs, a little Music Fest here and there, and the audience that patronize my own choir… You give two little claps, a chuckle now and again and stop for the next performance! I felt so uncertain of how I should react. I am so not accustomed eh…Old habits die-hard… but die it did! I found myself tapping my feet now and then… Oh! I feel so rebellious it’s almost sinful:-P…It’s a start… ‘Llow meh na!

Xavier Baptiste performing “Stand up for Love”

I admit I was really feeling the vibes! However during “Friend of a Wounded Heart” , I became quite distracted by the accompanying dance by Ian Baptiste that I guess I did not fully enjoy the entire performance… Yeah I’m easily distracted. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad! It was good actually…probably even quite good… but I have seen Ian Perform before, and after I have been privy to the Awesomeness that is Ian Baptiste, “Good” no longer seems to cut it. I felt as though his performance was tamed. All I could think of was “why didn’t he, wouldn’t he, couldn’t he give his all?? Ian! wa happen boy?

One of the Guest Performances, The St. Hilaire Brothers, deserves particular mention. Yet as I herald their special mention-ness I can only find one word to describe them … Miraculous! The way their voices blended was absolutely uncanny. Imagine, Big grown hard backed men with voices clear as a bell, smooth and sweet as honey and making a range as high as… have you ever heard Justin Timberlake back in his boy band days? Well I feel as though a member of that quartet surpassed that. He could probably give Mariah Carey a run for her money.

Oh! Before I forget… I totally loved Lois and Jeunes Agape  in “Earth Song” . Since the show began however, the audio coming through to the auditorium was a bit loud, which compromised the enjoy-ability of some performances at times…”Earth song” included… but only to a small, probably even a negligible extent. I totally Fulljoyed it! On another note, I did not understand anything during D’ior DeBoulet‘s rap session in “Jesus is the Best thing”. Maybe because I am unfamiliar with the song, or should that even be a reason? Heck I wasn’t familiar with much of the concert repertoire. Perhaps D’ior should consider more work where diction is concerned. It was a wonderful performance though. I loved his energy!

D’ior DeBoulet’s rap session in “Jesus is the best thing”

The second half included a rendition of Celine Dion and Andrea Bocceli’s “The Prayer” performed by Kale Ross and Emma Griffith. At best, i could only describe it as a good attempt. In listening to the “Prayer”, I remember a young Kale Ross, back in the days when he was far from a fully fledged Rasta, and his solo in “Magalenha” with Jeunes Agape for the 2008 Trinidad and Tobago National Music Festival – Most Outstanding Folk Choir. To see that performance click here.

Kale Ross

Unfortunately, nothing was different about his performance…voice wise I mean. The technique and tone that he employed back then and which was suitable for a folk piece, was not applicable and did not transpose well for “the Prayer”. His voice lacked the Classical undertone, the rounding of the notes as we call it, that I have come to expect from any rendition of this piece. I am unsure if it was the emphasis being put in the wrong syllables at times or perhaps I was being confused by his thick Trinidadian accent. His voice was quite colloquial and he seemed and sounded out of his element.Emma Griffith had the contemporary tone for the piece but seemed to fluctuate occasionally around the correct pitch. The duo made some recovery toward the end of the song though, and I applaud Emma for so skillfully brining Kale back from what appeared to be the dreaded path of incorrect lyrics.  All that being said, it was my impression that the classical genre and such light music is probably not the strongest suit for either of the duo. The audience however did not seem to mind either way. By the Bridge: “Sognamo un mondo senza piu violenza…” They were back to their frenzied state and I must say… it was becoming quite contagious.Another Guest performer was Sean Daniel. I can’t say too much about I think I was too distracted by his opening statements to appreciate whatever he did afterward. “All the Ladies say Yay Yay???.. and all the Real fellas say Hmmm!” Was that the norm for a gospel concert?… and what the Hell does “Real Fella” supposed to mean :|?? I did however quite enjoy that little session when the Members of Jeunes Agape spontaneously joined Sean during his performance. Their rich harmonies added so much more to the performance I can’t even describe it. As perplexing as his opening statements were, I can agree with him on one thing though:
“Jeaunes Agape could Sang!!.. Not sing.. Sang!” 
 I appreciated that the choir was only present when needed instead of being ever-present for the entire show, standing like a silent back drop with no particular purpose. ’cause then I will tend to get distracted by the odd man out who would pick their nose, or fidget ever so frequently. The backup singers were there only when they needed to sing and even better, only how much were needed at times this may be just one to add an occasional harmony to a solo or a duet or the full cast. When they weren’t needed they seated or left the stage area with a purpose… not the uncertain trailing off that I have become so accustomed to seeing from other groups. Props for that!It was commendable that all the accompanying vocals and dances were done by Jeunes Agape themselves. They truly are a multi-talented bunch. And the way the ensemble members so seamlessly made their transition from backup singers by the mics upstage to the full-out dancing downstage and then back to the mics… Weeeeey Jed!By the end of the show I became indistinguishable from the frenzied Mass! I was on my feet too and I doing much more than tapping my feet… I t was truly an entertaining experience and just between you and me, (you being the million and one people who may eventually read this), being able to witness such an event, I confess… I felt the joy of what it used to be like to be Truly Christian again.

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