Feature Stories

9th Annual service of Black & Jewish spirituals

Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray and Gigi Van Dyke

On Jan. 13, Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield will host the ninth annual service of Black and Jewish spirituals to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. The program will feature the TSI adult choir, led by the congregation’s Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray, and the Norwalk-based Serendipity Chorale, directed by Gigi Van Dyke and now in its 36th year. The two musicians, longtime friends, spoke with the Ledger about how their unique collaboration developed.

Q: How did the two of you meet and start working together?
Cantor Debbie Katchko-Gray: In the late ‘80s, I was living in Norwalk, working with clergy through the Human Services Council to help educate on substance abuse and other issues. At the same time, Rev. Lewis Farrakhan was raising his awful, bigoted voice. His language was getting more inflammatory; he called Judaism a “gutter religion” and I worried that the African-American community was listening to him and that, if they weren’t friendly with other Jews, they would take his words to heart.
The African-American and Jewish communities were very separate in Norwalk at the time – they did not socialize or work together on communal issues enough – and I decided that we needed to try to come together. I proposed a community healing service. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “I want to heal this awful antisemitism that’s spewing out of this African-American leader,” but there were people in the community hurting from domestic violence and drug abuse. I thought of a musical healing service, bringing in different parts of the community, as a way to bring us all together and be exposed to different religious and musical traditions.
I was told that Gigi Van Dyke had a great inter-generational choir. I sought her out and we did this healing service together, and then did a concert of Black and Jewish spirituals in Norwalk. We really loved each other musically. We call each other “Spiritual Soul Sister.”
Gigi Van Dyke: I heard that a wonderful lady who was working as a cantor in East Norwalk had written a song about Norwalk and was going to be performing it as a duet with a tenor who sang with my chorale. I was going to play piano for them because they were rehearsing at my place. The night she walked in, her loving spirit came to the door before she did. Debbie’s so open and loving and musically easygoing and that’s the way I am. Our first concert together was a program of Black and Jewish spirituals with musician Chance Browne at an Episcopalian church in Norwalk. Neither of us will beat up on a piece of music; we make the presentation and hope the message will invade the hearts of the singers.
DKG: I lost touch with Gigi when I moved to Buffalo and when I came back to the area, in the back of my mind I was hoping that our paths would cross again. Soon after I moved to Ridgefield 12 years ago, someone I knew ran into Gigi and she’s been bringing her choir to the synagogue ever since and it’s everyone’s favorite service.
GVD: During our separation, Debbie was never out of my heart and every now and then I would ask someone where to find her and sometimes someone would say, “Debbie’s looking for you.”

Q: What does the Serendipity Chorale sing to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.?
GVD: “Precious Lord” was Dr. King’s favorite song. The arrangement we do was written especially for celebrations of Martin Luther King Day and uses words from his “Sermon on the Mount.” “We Shall Overcome” is very much associated with the Freedom Movement. “Deep River” was sung by slaves in this country, who would use songs to surreptitiously plan their movement. Many times, when their masters thought they were merely singing, they were making plans for escape. In “Down by the River Side,” the phrase, “lay down my sword and shield” can also refer symbolically to the weapons with which you fight to keep integration from happening. “Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name” is a former Negro spiritual. More than 6,000 spirituals have been written, and not all in a composed state. For example, Pete Seeger is known for a version of “We Shall Overcome” that he wrote with other musicians. They heard people picketing and singing the gospel song, “We Will Overcome,” and Pete and his friends wrote it down and it became the famous song. Pete told me that all the royalties he gets benefit an African nation.

Q: What are “Jewish spirituals?”
DKG: As a cantor, hazzanut – cantorial music – is our soul music and we can’t forget that. It’s so unfortunate that a cantor may be seen as a luxury, when in fact he or she is the essence of the prayer service. You’ve got to have uplifting music. For example, we have Chassidic music, Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, Cantor Meir Finkelstein, who composes modern liturgical music influenced by American musical theater. I like to mix modern composers and traditional music. Music can comfort, soothe, and heal, and there’s also music that can be very uplifting and bring you to tears and to joy.

Q: How do the Jewish and Black spiritual traditions work together in the Jan. 13 service?
DKG: We don’t just bring in the Serendipity Choir and say, “You’ll sing your kosher gospel.” I have always tried to use the power of Gigi’s music by interweaving it throughout the Friday-night service. So, for example, their song about bringing us to pray is before “Barchu.” “Deep River” comes before “Mi Kamocha.” I put “Precious Lord” right before our silent Amidah because it brings us to a place of thinking, and hope for the future and for a better world. It’s sharing Black and Jewish spirituals and putting it into one prayer experience; the choir is praying with us.
GVD: I believe with all my heart that one of the things that binds us is our struggle for social equality, and so I think we can sing about the same needs, for freedom and social justice.
I’ve been at Temple Shearith Israel so much that when I walk in there, the line is so nebulous between walking into my church and walking into the synagogue. When you go there, you know you are with someone who has walked your road – maybe not the same path, but questing for the same social and economic equality.

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