25 April 2014

Gospel according to Payne

23/11/2011 10:49:00 a.m.

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Pip Payne swung into gospel. Photo: Alden Williams.

Pip Payne swung into gospel. Photo: Alden Williams.

A night of stirring gospel music shook 100-year-old dust from the rafters of an ancient Wellington church and changed Pip Payne’s life.
A JAZZ and blues musician from London, he followed a Kiwi girl to Wellington in 1978 and never left. Five years ago he walked into Old St Paul’s to ask about setting up a gig for his swing band.
The church already had swing musicians, so Payne walked out having booked a date for a gospel show instead, with no knowledge of gospel and only five weeks to prepare.  He decided to hold a low-key, blues-inspired gospel gig with a few singers and musicians and see what happened.
The night went well. Very well. In fact, Payne says, “It was so easy it was like there was a hand guiding it.”
Gospel has a long history. Some forms of gospel music came from the call and response style that developed among enslaved African-Americans who used church as a sanctuary for expression. Through travelling minstrel shows in the late 1800s, sheet music in the early 1900s, and records in the 1920s, many of these gospel slave songs came to influence popular music and were celebrated by a wider audience as time went by.
At Payne’s first gospel show, more than 500 people packed out Old St Paul’s, a venue that traditionally only holds 400. The show created such a feeling of jubilation among the crowd that “it was like the old place was celebrating another birthday,” says Payne, “The cleaners complained about all the dust that had been shaken loose by the singing.”
Payne found a Samoan gospel choir from Newtown that was looking for more opportunities to perform, and suddenly found himself with a full gospel line up, soloists and all, alongside some skilled musicians.
The standing ovation changed him for good. Payne, who plays the guitar and sings, had mainly been doing solo jazz, swing and blues, but after that one night, he says he had to keep his gospel project alive.
“I couldn’t go back to playing songs in pubs about lost girlfriends,” he explains. There’s a glint of excitement in his eye when he recalls the night that made him change his mind, “Hearing one gospel song is uplifting, but a whole night of it? That changes things.”
Payne picked up his first guitar at 15 years old, hooked on the unusual syncopation of old-style ragtime music. After college he began studying at art school then pulled out and headed to Europe, travelling and gigging through his early 20s. After meeting a Kiwi girl in Greece, he came here to live and set up Capital Blues Inc., now one of the oldest blues societies in the country.
Early in his musical career, Payne says he realised that while it’s common for people to adopt different types of music to identify with, that same phenomenon can both create a community and be an isolator.
“Take folk, take rock, take whatever kind of music you like… A common identity binds a group together but it also forms a fence around them,” he explains.
Christian rock, though it creates a community for Christians, can be especially isolating for those who don’t identify that way, he says. Payne married a Christian around the time of the first gospel gig, one of the reasons he wanted to explore his interest in gospel as a “great leveller of people”.
“I noticed how people have a specific reaction to churches, for example. Most people walk in and start whispering. They’re conditioned to think that it’s a place to be silent, to pray and reflect,” he muses, “I started thinking that it could be the place to make a lot of joyous noise as well.”
A solid sense of community is important to Payne, who says a lot of people look towards self-help books and individualised therapies but could benefit from the simple support of other people. Every gospel song is an affirmation of that kind of support and fills that exact gap in society, explains Payne, who finds himself often thinking about the impact of gospel after that one big night. He believes that through gospel, people who tend to stay in their own groups, be it by identifying with a particular style of music, a race or religion, can come together.
“They’re still religious songs but at the old-school gospel shows different communities gathered under the one roof,” Payne says, explaining the simple vision he’d like to see resurrected, “Gospel came from the shout of an enslaved people who had to have faith that things would be ok. Those messages of hope are still relevant to modern living.”
The only expectation at a gospel show is to have some fun and collectively raise the roof. If you feel like it, it’s the place where you’re free to get out of your seat and into the aisles to dance and clap and sing along to the simple choruses.
With that in mind, there’s another concert planned for Old St Paul’s. Payne’s chosen songs to reflect early ‘country-and-blues’-inspired gospel, the music that’s been experiencing a resurgence in popularity through contemporary artists Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama. He wants to steer away from the “pretty, floaty” gospel and head down that muddy track of country and blues with a rock and roll background. Expect vocal harmonies, guitar, mandolin, lap steel, organ and piano in both an acoustic and electric style.
As Payne says, gospel’s a good way to relieve sorrow, to identify with other people’s troubles, which in turn makes you feel better, “A problem shared is a problem halved,” he laughs, “So bring your neighbours.”
Capital Gospel show, Old St Paul’s, 7-9pm, November 25.
- Jennifer Niven
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