Harlem Gospel Choir to perform in Hong Kong this week

Gospel choir founded in memory of Martin Luther King rides genre's local revival

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 4:55am

Hong Kong is a long way from the churches of Harlem, but a popular gospel choir from the African-American neighbourhood in New York will make its first visit to Hong Kong since the troupe formed 26 years ago.

About 15 singers from the Harlem Gospel Choir will perform two shows in Hong Kong on Friday and Saturday. The group will also tour three major cities on the mainland and perform at the CCTV's New Year's Eve gala special in Beijing.

The choir's founder, Allen Bailey, said many Chinese tourists to New York stop by on Sundays to hear the choir he established in memory of US civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King.

Bailey described a typical gospel choir as lively, with people dancing, stomping their feet and jumping on stage.

"Gospel music is about people who have suffered, so it's very inspirational music. You see a lot of crying and emotion," he said. "We toured Japan a few years ago, and even though many couldn't understand the language, the feeling came through."

Bailey recalls the moment in 1986 when he decided to form the group while attending a commemoration for King at Harlem's famous Cotton Club.

"I saw a replay of Dr King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1964), and he said we can all be great because we can all serve," said Bailey. "So the choir was founded on the principle of Dr King: bringing people and nations together and giving something back."

Born and raised in Harlem, Bailey joined his first gospel choir at age 15. At 72, he still sings every Sunday at church in central Harlem, home to about 30 different congregations.

Since 1986, Bailey's 60-member troupe has performed in 156 countries with shows for President Obama, Nelson Mandela, at the Vatican and in mosques, synagogues and Buddhist temples.

In 1968, just months before King was assassinated, Bailey - then a 20-something college student - met the famed activist while arranging buses to take protesters for civil rights rallies. "He was amazing and he just had this energy about him," he said.

Gospel music is experiencing a revival in Hong Kong, where some 10 per cent of the population is Christian. Lawyer and part-time musician Henry Chung, 35, and his brother, Roger, 29, released a Cantonese-language gospel music album in 2009 and another last year.

"Gospel music … is heavenly," said Henry. "Gospel music is a foundation for all music - jazz, soul, blues and R&B all have gospel roots."