A Whole Lot of Soul:

Deryn Varney

The Colgate University Chapel played host last Saturday to Gospel Fest. When featured singer Kirk Franklin walked onstage at few minutes past 7 p.m., the crowd exploded. Those audience members seated in the upper level of the Chapel peered excitedly over the railing. The Chapel may not have contained this much enthusiasm since last semester’s Dance Fest.

From that first expression of enthusiasm, the energy increased. After Kirk Franklin had left the stage, Vice President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson stepped across it, stopping in the middle to take a bow in response to the audience’s clapping. Kirk Franklin and gospel choirs from six different schools from across the mid-state — Colgate, Cornell, Ithaca, Syracuse, Cortland and Hamilton – were here, she explained, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the African, Latin, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) cultural center. She continued with an introduction that highlighted the need for groups to unite as part of a larger community in order to face the problems of the 20th century. She also noted that in the Chapel foyer there was a table set up to accept donations in support of the children’s AIDS fund.

“But let’s not think about that now,” Johnson said. “Let’s get this party started.”

Franklin reappeared onstage, and the crowd exploded in cheers for the second time. He began to speak but stopped abruptly. He smiled, posed for the flashing cameras-and started speaking again to introduce the choirs.

Colgate singers, in maroon robes, performed first, while members of the other choirs sat in chairs behind them on stage. The audience clapped in rhythm to the music, but Kirk Franklin admonished them after Colgate had finished for their failed attempts at syncopation. He also congratulated the piano player, Dianne Adams McDowell, a spunky woman with glasses and gray hair in a bob.

“Move over Alicia Keyes,” Franklin said.

Cortland, whose choir was much larger and more diverse, sang next and earned a standing ovation at the end of their performance. Then the much smaller Hamilton choir, in blue robes, stepped forward on the stage. The voice of the soloist resonated deeply, cutting through the unified voice of the chorus. It was not clear who was echoing whom.

After their performance, Franklin recaptured the audience’s attention by grabbing the mic from the soloist who had started sending shout-outs into the audience.

Franklin requested that the soloist sing while he played piano. The audience reacted to the improvised performance with another standing ovation. Franklin was excited.

“Gospel music is spontaneous,” Franklin said. “This is not about race; it’s about what’s in here. I’m gonna point to the white boy.”

The chosen white boy dashed onstage, confident and began to sing what was apparently one of Kirk Franklin’s songs. Franklin was overcome with mock outrage, and he grabbed the mic, telling the boy he had to sing the song right.

Syracuse performed last, dressed in shades of blue., but with no less energy than any of the other groups, incorporating choreography into their performance, and seting the audience on fire.

The atmosphere became distinctly subdued when Franklin spoke again. While jazz piano played quietly in the background, he said a prayer. The concert ended with synchronized voices from the audience and all six gospel choirs singing a final set of four songs.

Afterward, Junior Brian Haghighi said he had come to the concert because he’d heard good things about Kirk Franklin’s music. He called the experience deep and transformative.

“Tonight was powerful,” Haghighi said.