March 28, 2023
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Life & Culture

Soulful gospel music returns to Ithaca after hiatus

The Ithaca College Amani Gospel Singers was a prominent choir on campus until they stopped performing four years ago for reasons unknown to the current executive board. Now the group is back under new leadership — ready to continue the group’s near 40 years of legacy.

The Amani Gospel Singers are a collaborative, non-audition gospel choir open to students of all faiths and denominations. The group is the college’s only gospel choir. The history of the Amani Gospel Singers traces back to the creation of the African-Latino Society (ALS) at the college. Junior Alexa Rahman, the group’s secretary, said the choir was one of the first groups founded under ALS, and because of its extensive history and connection to ALS, the Amani Gospel Singers have a deep alumni network. 

“They still get together and sing sometimes, which is really great,” Rahman said. “The outreach that this organization has is just really impressive, so that’s the most important thing about it.”

Part of the group’s mission statement is to make the choir open to all religious backgrounds, even though gospel is traditionally rooted in Christianity. Junior Dwayne Lewis, the group’s music director, said the Amani Gospel Singers focus on learning and loving the culture of gospel music. 

“My role as president was to kind of reinstate the gospel choir and be able to … kind of steer the ship and be able to kind of recreate a new idea of what Amani gospel represents,” Lewis said.

The choir reformed in Spring 2022 and performed for the first time since 2018 at the Spirit of IC concert in December 2022. 

Junior Marcelo Ranghelli-Duran, the Amani Gospel Singers’s treasurer, said that getting the group started up again was difficult, but interest built up quickly following its December 2022 performance at the Spirit of IC concert.

“There were really only four of us as members, and we were really close to actually just dropping the whole thing, we were like, ‘This is hopeless,’” Duran said. “But really we were just like, ‘What’s the harm in just trying a little longer.’”

Lewis said his goal is to build back up to the prominence the group held before its hiatus, with around 25–30 members, and enough of a presence to impact the community.

“Years back they were touring and they were doing different shows, and, you know, they had such a big representation on campus that I think it’s needed again,” Lewis said.

Rahman said the group will be opening up membership within the next few weeks and will start to hold rehearsals to prepare for upcoming shows. The Amani Gospel Singers are planning a showcase sometime in the spring semester.

“We’re just hoping to perform a lot and get more members,” Rahman said. 

The group receives advising support from Baruch Whitehead, associate professor in the Department of Music Education, and founding director of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers — an Ithaca-based choir dedicated to preserving the tradition of African American spirituals, which came from West African musical tradition and the enslaved experiences of Black people. Spirituals led to the formation of gospel music, as well as blues and jazz, according to the New York Times. The Amani Gospel Singers have been working with the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers and will be the opening act for some of their concerts.  

Rahman, a vocal major, said that adding gospel music to her repertoire has helped her grow as a musician.

“It’s a very strong and soulful sound, so it really helps to tap into the emotional aspects of music,” Rahman said. “So I think that’s probably one of the most important things that it brings, for me at least, and probably most people, that the emotional aspect of it is just really, really powerful.”

Duran said the choir gives him a way to work with Black musicians, which is an experience he feels he is missing as a music student at the college. Duran is a jazz studies major, and jazz is a historically Black genre of music, but he feels that it has become whitewashed or gentrified, especially at colleges.

“As a jazz musician … you’d think I was encountering Black musicians,” Duran said. “But that’s not really the case.”

When Duran was approached by Rahman about joining the revived Amani Gospel Choir, he felt inclined to join.

“It’s a Black genre of music that has really stood its ground, socially and culturally,” Duran said. “Gospel was a means of bringing together, you know, POC on campus who love music.”

The group meets every Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. in the James J. Whalen Center for Music room 3301, and is open to everyone, regardless of musical experience or faith.

“I don’t audition,” Lewis said. “If you can sing, you can sing, and if you like it, just come be a part. It’s open and welcoming … and it’s not about religion, it’s just about the love for music.”