Momma, I Want To Swing

On a recent sweltering afternoon, about a dozen Japanese housewives, students and office workers gathered inside a tiny church on West 126th Street in Harlem. Staring at lyrics printed on bright yellow sheets of paper, they listened as the pastor explained the gospel song they were about to learn. "This song we call a praise song," said Terrance L. Kennedy, from his seat behind the organ. "We're saying many wonderful things to God and about God." Then he began reading the verses, stressing their syncopated rhythm. "We sing praises to the king, for he is the king of kings," said Kennedy. "We sing praises to the king, for he's the king of kings." The singers, organized by sopranos, altos and tenors, repeated the verses as best they could. Words like "hail" and "Immanuel" (a Hebrew term for God) had to be translated. But half an hour later, the choir members--a mix of tourists and regulars who live around New York--were swaying, clapping their hands and singing at the tops of their voices. The pronunciation was a little off, but the soul was definitely there.

Kennedy's pupils are among the growing ranks of Japanese who have become enthralled with black gospel music. In Tokyo alone, there are now 25 to 30 choirs. Countrywide, the number may be more than 100. Tommy Tomita, founder of the Harlem Japanese Gospel Choir, says it all started with the 1992 film "Sister Act," in which Whoopi Goldberg teaches a choir of nuns to swing. It was a huge hit in Japan. Ronnie Rucker, an upstate New York native who runs a choir at Chofu Minami Christ Church in Tokyo, says gospel music has an inherent attraction for the Japanese. It provides an otherwise repressed society with a chance to let it all out. "It's a great stress reliever," he says.

Others say gospel's spirituality is the main draw. Megumi Awano, who is Christian, got into gospel music about 13 years ago while working in California. Instantly hooked, she has started her own choir, Tokyo Voices of Praise, back home. "Japanese people love singing," she says. "But I think they are also seeking a healing."

But unlike Awano, and the vast majority of black gospel singers, most Japanese followers aren't religious. Kennedy says that doesn't detract from their singing. "The spirit is still there," he says, "because they sing from their hearts. Older gospel music is about the hard knocks of life that black slaves were having. And everyone can identify with turmoil, trouble, anger and fear." His pupils, in fact, offer a fresh interpretation of songs he's heard hundreds of times before. "They bring an excitement to what they're doing with the music," he says. "They've given me an opportunity to rehear it."

The Japanese fondness for gospel is part of a wider interest in African-American traditions. "Japanese are just enamored with New York and with black culture," says Rucker. "Harlem represents the enter of that culture." Harlemites have noticed the interest and appreciate it. Murphy Heyliger, founder of a small crafts shop called Harlemade, says he can always count on Japanese tourists to buy a few trinkets. "They come in, and everything is so cool to them," he says. After leaving his shop, he's noticed many of them head up to 125th Street--to have their hair dreadlocked.

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