October 11, 2008

San Jose Gospel Choir Wins Regional Competition

By Alan Fackler

On a massive, dramatically lit stage in Oakland's Oracle Arena, the Independent Holiness Church turned their song toward the eastern wing.

"Raise up," they shouted at the screaming fans, who readily obeyed, hands waving to-and-fro. "Are you ready? Are you ready for your miracle?"

The choir went on to win the V-Cast People's Choice Award for best small choir ensemble at the Verizon Wireless "How Sweet the Sound" gospel competition Friday night. Six groups from around the Bay Area were vying for cash prizes and a chance to sing in the finals in Atlanta on Nov. 8.

The Antioch Church of Family-Voices won $10,000 for best small choir ensemble while San Jose-based Jubilee Christian Center took another $10,000 for best large choir ensemble and will have the honor of representing the Bay Area in the finals in Atlanta.

"Gospel music is extremely centered and very emotionally based," said Myron Clifton, director of sales for Verizon. "It's not your standard competition. The competitors root and cheer for one another. Camaraderie is the key to gospel music."

More than 10,000 fans from across the Bay Area made the trek to the Oracle Arena to embrace what many believe to be a spiritual experience. Most fans spent the concert on their feet, hands in the air, eyes closed.

"It absolutely uplifts you," said Myisha Watts, a MUNI employee from Richmond. "If you've had a long day, gospel can immediately turn that around. It gets my day started."

Others saw the event as an opportunity to experience something new.

"I just wanted to see what this is all about," said Emily Chan, a 19-year-old student from San Francisco. "I think music can change someone's idea of religion. I think people could see music as a segue into religion."

The competition, now in its second year, is touring across the country. The goal, according to six-time Grammy nominated musician and judge Marvin Sapp, is simple: to find the best choir ensemble in America.

For a competition focused on a niche genre, the range of music on display was startling. Each choir, accompanied by a live band, brought something new to the stage.

Oakland-based HavensCourt Community Church played a jump and jive, '50s jazz-inspired tune that had fans clapping their hands to the quick-moving beat while the Antioch Church Family-Voices choir began its set with a passionate ballad, then transitioned to a quick and savvy hand clapper.

The judges, mostly accomplished, Grammy-nominated artists, kept things lively and upbeat, singing together and cracking jokes with the audience.

"It's music that will help you when your boss gets on your nerves," said Grammy-winning artist and host Donald Lawrence. "It's music that will help you when your kids get on your nerves. But, most importantly, it's music we turn to for hope and inspiration."

By the end of the night, the raging crowd showed no signs of fatigue.

"This is the thread that knits our communities together," Lawrence said. "This is our music. It inspires and empowers us."

Originally published by Alan Fackler, Oakland Tribune Correspondent.

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