Karen Burke and the Toronto Mass Choir: How Great Thou Art!

Toronto Mass Choir.jpg

Submitted by Bill King
Author of Bill King’s “In Concert!” Essays, Images and Interviews

Back in June I inked in a performance of the Toronto Mass Choir as a must see, must photograph event as part of the TD Toronto Jazz afternoon series at Nathan Phillips Square – City Hall, Toronto. Gospel music for me is part of my DNA growing up on the border between the North and South, a few blocks from the raging Ohio River separating the state of Indiana from that of Kentucky.

Sunday morning all of us kids were carted to bible school and prayer service and then the “fire and brimstone” admonitions of a minister set on saving lost souls. Churches were partitioned much like day to day life in the early sixties with whites shivering under the fear of eternal days spent burning on the devil’s backyard barbeque while across the river the black congregations celebrated life in big song, joyful interplay and these massive choirs. Oh, how I wanted to be transported across state lines.

Gospel music is ever evolving, much of that the dedicated work of choir directors and the young and inspired. Those new faces have other ideas and they come with new challenges and much needed guidance.

As I watched the Toronto Mass Choir my eyes couldn’t helped being drawn to the energetic woman in front – pushing and directing; using her whole body as an instrument in getting the most from all that stage talent. I thought to myself – one day I must meet her.

Long before seeing the choir live, I booked the ensemble on the Beaches International Jazz Festival along with up and coming gospel singer – Amoy Levy. Recently, that mysterious woman and I crossed on Facebook and now we all get a chance to hear in her words what her world in gospel music is all about. I give you Karen Burke!

Karen BurkeKaren BurkeBill King: How long has the choir been together and have you been there since the start?
Karen Burke:  My husband, Oswald and I co-founded the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC) as part of a group called the A.G.M.M. (Associated Gospel Music Ministries) back in the late 80’s in Toronto.  It was decided to put together a live recording gospel choir and the choir officially began in October 1988.  I have been the principle director since that time and have continued in that role for the past 26 years.

Bill: What are rehearsals like and how often?
Karen: TMC is now 35 voices strong coming from all across the GTA.  We have rehearsals twice or month--more if necessary--but generally every other week for 3 hours each time.  We pack a lot into each rehearsal, starting with prayer and praise and vocal technique, move into repertoire (sometimes with the band) and finish off with ‘family time’ including announcements and birthdays.  We feel it is important to connect socially, spiritually and musically.

Bill: Do you have many long time members?
Karen: There are still 3 members in the choir that started with us back in 1988.  We have another 4 members who have been singing with TMC for over 20 years and still quite another large segment of the choir that has been singing with us for 10 years or more.  Thankfully, we have quite a strong core of singers and we continue to welcome new members.

Bill:  How many concerts a year?
Karen: The choir strives to maintain a busy touring schedule which takes us to all sorts of national and international venues including festivals, churches, fundraisers, television and radio, etc.  We usually will present at 25-30 engagements a year.

Bill:  How do you find material?
Karen: Most of our material is written and/or arranged by myself and people in or associated with TMC.  We also perform cover songs recorded by other great gospel artists such as Donnie McClurkin, Kurt Carr and Kirk Franklin, to name a few.

Bill: There’s a nice Caribbean touch – is that rooted in ancestry?
Karen: The vast majority of the choir’s singers come from a Caribbean background.  My husband is from Jamaica and also recorded there.  In fact, gospel music in Canada is much more influenced by Caribbean and jazz music than our American counterparts.  We have found that the Caribbean influence in our music adds to the uniqueness of our sound and in performance, it always connects with our audiences.  When we travel overseas to countries like Italy and Poland, it is the Caribbean music that often receives the most enthusiastic response.

Bill:  What artists have most influenced you and your approach?
Karen: When we started the choir in 1988, we were definitely influenced by other gospel choirs from American cities such as the Chicago Mass Choir, the L.A. Mass Choir and Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers.  Over the past 26 years, we have been influenced by writers who continue to write great gospel choir music such as Hezekiah Walker and classic gospel recording artists such as Walter Hawkins and Andrae Crouch.  We are most influenced by and seek to create gospel music with memorable tunes and a strong gospel message.

Bill:  What is your training?
Karen: I come from a ‘gospel family’ singing background in Brantford, ON.  I began studying classical piano at the age of 5 and received an Honours Bachelor of Music Degree from McMaster University.  It was there that I discovered my aptitude and love for choral conducting.  From about the age of 3, I was travelling with my family and singing gospel music.  In 1981, I met my husband Oswald, who was also travelling, singing and writing gospel music in Toronto.  Since 2005, I have been teaching full-time in the music department at York University where, besides teaching theory, conducting and music education, I have created the first gospel music curriculum at a post-secondary institution in Canada.  The York University Gospel Choir, a 100-voice ensemble, is a vibrant part of the campus.  I love my job!

Bill:  It’s not only about singing but performing too. Where does that come from?
Karen: Gospel music has a culture and a performance practice that makes it really fascinating.  I call it ‘whole body singing’.  The sound of a gospel choir is quite unique but it is not just the sound.  The sight of so many people moving in unison, executing with high energy and a common goal is captivating!  The roots of gospel music arose from a people that, while they were chained, abused and tortured during the time of slavery, were still able to raise songs of hope that spoke of a better day coming.  Songs like, I Must Go On and Soon And Very Soon are gospel songs built on a tradition that basically helped slaves survive those perilous times.  Gospel music is and always will be about freedom--freedom of expression, freedom to praise, freedom to improvise, freedom of movement, etc.  This is what you are experiencing when you witness a gospel music performance.

Bill: How do you keep the enthusiasm up?
Karen: If anyone has ever seen a gospel concert or sung in a gospel choir, you know that you rarely witness the same performance twice.  It is always new because our daily experiences are new, and we are free to create a ‘new song’ every time we come together.  Seriously, there is no better place to be then right in the thick of the worship when everyone is singing with one voice and one heart and with everything that they have!  TMC doesn’t just sing this music, we believe every word and when you are passionate about what you do, the enthusiasm never dies. 

Bill;  Gospel has seemed to have changed and stepped away from the shout and testify thing to more emphasis on the message. Self reliance and facing one’s problems. Is this an accurate reading?
Karen: Today there are so many styles of gospel music.  ‘Shout and testify’ will always play a huge role in gospel music but artists such as Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and Tye Tribbett have also shown us that we can embrace more contemporary styles of music and still have a huge impact as long as we maintain a strong gospel message.  Some contemporary gospel music, in the name of being more accessible, tends to focus more on topics such as overcoming, living a victorious life and receiving a blessing.  While these messages have traditionally been a part of gospel music, they have always been part of a larger story that speaks of the impact of God’s presence in our lives.  The Toronto Mass Choir is committed to creating music which invites the listener to experience God.  Gospel music is a very compelling medium and the power of gospel music is in the lyric, not just the groove!

Bill:  How do you get and keep youth interested in this music?
Karen: I really enjoy seeing what happens when you put youth and gospel music in the same room together.  Basically, it creates a sonic boom!  I don’t have to do much to interest youth in gospel music.  It is my privilege just to put them together and watch the fireworks!  One of my newest ventures is the City Youth Gospel Project - a day of learning gospel music designed for middle and high school choirs. It is held annually at York University and the next one will be on May 1,  2015.  Here is a promotional video: http://youtu.be/nWoQj_JQ4gM

Bill:  The best singers on the planet came from the church – do you have any heroes?
Karen: You are right, the best singers in the planet do come from the church!  My all-time favourite is Daryl Coley, simply the singer’s singer! Check out one of his vocal masterpieces, To Live Is Christ! I love great music--period--and so my eclectic taste also includes Ella Fitzgerald, Barbara Streisand and Gary LeVox from ‘Rascal Flatts’.  Let’s face it, there will never be another Mahalia Jackson and singers such as Tramaine Hawkins and the Clark Singers have set the standard that today’s gospel vocalists all want to emulate.  I think it is extremely important, however, that gospel singers develop their own voice, learn all they can, listen to great music and become the best that they can!

Bill: Where do you see the music going the years ahead?
Karen: Gospel music has always been the soundtrack of the African American experience and because of the centrality of the Black church in that culture, gospel music will continue to have a strong presence in the U.S.  While the Toronto gospel music scene is very active, gospel music is generally ‘under the radar’ in Canada.  But it is huge in other countries that you would never suspect such as Japan and Poland.  With the help of technology, the export potential of gospel music is huge.  Radio has always been a friend to gospel music and recording quality tracks by independent artists has never been more possible then it is today.  There is still room to grow however.  We still need to build a strong infrastructure which includes radio promoters, managers and publicists.  It is a very exciting time to be involved in gospel music and to witness successive generations of musicians and songwriters, who are increasingly more educated and mobile, creating great gospel music.  The sky is the limit!


For more visit: www.tmc.ca