Although St. James Hall has long been deconsecrated, Marcus Mosley is happy that the site of the Sojourners' upcoming CD-release party was once holy ground. It's not that he minds performing in secular environments–the Sojourners see a lot of blues clubs when they're on the road with their friend and occasional employer, singer Jim Byrnes. Still, the sanctified aura that permeates the former chapel is going to make it easier for Mosley and his fellow vocalists Ron Small and Will Sanders to achieve their goal: having church.
"Some people go to church, but black people have church," says Mosley, calling the Straight from his Vancouver home. "It's a different thing. It's a full-contact sport with us."
The affable singer and former missionary is laughing, but he's serious, too. For people who have been brought up in the African-American tradition, one of the most puzzling aspects of Canadian life is the grave solemnity that attends religious functions north of the border. "I'm not criticizing Canadian church and worship," the Texas-born Mosley notes dryly, "but it's a little bit different than African-American Baptist or Pentecostal church services."
One difference, I posit, is that in Canada the church has generally been an instrument of social control, whereas African-American pastors preached a kind of liberation theology long before that term came into vogue. Mosley counters that it's not quite so cut and dried: in some southern areas of the U.S., the church encouraged obedience to obviously unjust laws. Still, Sunday services were one of the few opportunities slaves and sharecroppers had to join together as a community.
"The church was a source of survival, not just physical survival but spiritual survival," he says. "If you want to go back to the slave period, it was that one hour or so on a Sunday when blacks were allowed to gather together and form a circle and start singing their songs. It was that one moment where they were able to be totally open, and self-empowered, and in touch with their higher selves–and then, of course, it would be back to the whip and the slave-owner mistreating them. So it was an hour of personal expression and freedom–an hour of grace."
The conditions of exile that apply to Vancouver's small African-American community are not so harsh, but for many U.S. transplants the church retains its social purpose. "Many of us miss the kind of church that we have back home," Mosley says, and as the leader of the Christ Church Cathedral–based Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir, he's in a position to do something about it. The 85-voice ensemble is also home to Sanders, who leads the men's chorus, and Small, its de facto patriarch. But the Sojourners didn't come together until 2006, when Byrnes was putting together his own gospel-inspired House of Refuge.
"Jim called me and said, 'Marcus, I'm working on a CD project, so can you get a couple of guys together and do some background vocals?'" Mosley explains. "So we did, and that became House of Refuge, which has been really successful. I mean, he's gotten like at least five different awards for it, Junos and all that stuff. And then [guitarist and producer] Steve Dawson came to us and said, 'You know, you guys are probably going to go on tour with Jim, so I'd like to produce a CD for you so you'll have some product.' So we got our heads together and came up with some songs and some arrangements, and then went into the studio. We spent about three days and put it all down on disc. Very down-and-dirty, and not over-produced; we just kept it very simple. But I liked the way it turned out."
Hold On, the Sojourners' debut, justifies Mosley's pride. With Dawson's expressive slide lines and Roebuck "Pops" Staples–approved rhythm work fleshing out the sound, the disc is already finding favour with roots-music enthusiasts as well as gospel zealots. It's Small, however, who just might be the record's biggest fan.
"Ron's having his 70th birthday on the seventh of December," Mosley notes. "And when we've been performing, he's started telling the audience, 'I've been singing all my life, but since I've been with this trio, it's like I'm having a whole new career. So if I die, I'm going to get up to those pearly gates and say: "I'm ready to go back! I'm not finished!"'"
Does this mean that the Sojourners are going to be more than just a one-album experiment?
"Well, I'm sure hoping so," Mosley confides. "From your lips to God's ears, as they say!"
The Sojourners play St. James Hall on Saturday (November 24).