Marcus Mosely Chorale Christmas Concert - Joy! An Evening of Gospel Music in the Christmas Spirit at St. Andrew's-Wesley Church, 1022 Nelson St. at Burrard, Dec. 7 and 8 at 7: 30 p.m. Tickets $25. For more info and to reserve tickets visit themarcusmoselychorale.ca.
AS a performer, his roots are in the Texas Panhandle, that vast expanse where his voice first blended with the church choir, their songs bursting through the shoe-polish covered storefront windows every Sunday.
But despite a lifetime of soul and gospel with influences stretching back through The Temptations, The Beatles, and Ray Charles, Marcus Mosely credits his mother as the wellspring from which his music flows.
"My mom always, always had a song on her lips," Mosely recalls. "She used to clean the houses of white people or do their laundry and that kind of thing, but she always had a song."
The spirituals and gospel songs she hummed or sang under her breath were a way of resisting a society that was both separate and unequal.
"I learned by observing her that that was her way of staying connected to her spirituality, to her core which gave her the inner-strength to deal with what came to her," Mosely says.
Time has altered the southern United States, but Mosely recalls walking through the backdoors of restaurants and drinking from water fountains labelled "Colored."
"When you're born into a culture that says . . . 'you are less than us and it is almost our job or our calling to make your life and lives of people who look like you as miserable as possible,' that was harsh and it affected my self-image growing up quite a lot," he says.
Moving from Texas to San Francisco, Calif. accorded the Mosely family a degree of social freedom, but it also gave the school-aged child a dose of northern hypocrisy.
"When you're living in the south at that time, the rules are pretty well spelled out. You knew where you stood. Moving to California, even then it wasn't P.C. to be outright racist, so it was more underhanded. They would smile at you, but then give the stab in the back later."
Sitting in a North Vancouver coffee shop, Mosely recollects seeing welcoming expressions and forbidding glares at different times but in the same faces.
"Part of what was my salvation in all of that was, I had music," he says. The Marcus Mosely Chorale consists of nearly 60 voices, with clapping hands as percussion and an organ accompanying the powerful gospel sound.
Mosely leads the choir with Ronnie DeLyle, with both men taking diverse approaches shaping the group's music.
"He can give them that more technical side of things, I give them more the core and gut-level stuff," Mosely explains.
Unable to read music because of dyslexia, Mosely is basically self-taught as a musician, but he was helped with a childhood gift.
"We didn't have a piano or anything like that at home, but I remember one Christmas I got a little, it was a piece of junk, but it was a little chord organ."
That present opened a realm of musical possibilities, offering Mosely a chance to experiment and create his own music.
"I loved that little thing. I wore it out," he says, laughing.
A staple of gospel music is the call-and-response between singer and choir, a rhythmic echo that enables the singer improvise and emote on the main melodies while the choir provides the music's pulse.
The musical approach likely dates back to a process called 'lining,' where a preacher and his congregation would work through a hymn one line at a time, usually because of a lack of printed material or a dearth of literacy.
The Marcus Mosely Chorale combines classic hymns with Beatles' music like "Let It Be." That combination of seemingly disparate elements has a long history in gospel music, according to Mosely.
While nursing his coffee, Mosely discusses the life of Thomas A. Dorsey, a blues pianist who coined the term 'gospel.'
After losing his wife and son in childbirth, Dorsey returned to his church, penning songs such as "Peace in the Valley," and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
"That was the beginning of gospel music," Mosely says.
That mixture of barrelhouse blues and heavenly aspirations initially engendered frequent criticism, according to Mosely.
"The established black churches were like, 'What are you doing bringing that worldly music into our church?' Mosely says. "But it was popular among the regular folks because they loved it because it had a beat to it and they could identify with it, and it grew and grew and grew."
After about 25 years as the exclusive property of black churches, Ray Charles brought the music to the masses, only with lyrics about a woman who lived way over town.
"That was originally a gospel tune, and he just put secular words to it," Mosely says of "I Got a Woman."
"The church was outraged at him: 'How dare you take our music into those bars and honky tonks?' It was ironic that the church was resistant to it at first, and then they owned it and they resented the fact that it was being used in this other way," Mosely says. "The cross-pollination has carried on for decades."
Mosely experienced the effects of the gospel sound on world music as a globetrotting missionary in the 1970s.
"By the time I was 19 years old I think I had been around the world maybe three times in various capacities, usually with my guitar strapped to my back," he says.
After receiving his training in Switzerland, he was part of a youth group that performed street theatre in Argentina during the 1978 World Cup and bootlegged bibles into communist countries in Europe.
"The church was under a lot of persecution there at that time, so we were involved in smuggling bibles and religious materials in," Mosely says of his time in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Soviet Union. "At that time it was a criminal offense."
After a decade of missionary work, Mosely's nomadic lifestyle halted in the 1980s, leaving the singer dealing with the effects of inertia.
"I went through a really tough time in my life where I basically hit bottom," Mosely says.
Nursing a case of burnout in a friend's West Hollywood apartment, Mosely received a life changing phone call just before the holidays.
Fellow missionary Graham Swan invited Mosely to spend Christmas with his family in Richmond, B.C.
"I said, 'Wow, that'd be great. I don't even have enough money to get the bus across town right now,' and he goes, 'Don't worry about it, we'll send you a ticket.'"
Today, Mosely credits that phone call with saving his life.
Since December of 1985, Mosely has called B.C. his home.
He does not travel as far or as often as he once did, but his work is much the same as it's always been.
"Once a missionary, always a missionary," Mosely says with a wide smile. "It's not that I necessarily want to force people into a particular religious belief but I think the power of spirituality or religion, what it's supposed to do at its best; now, granted we have that history of wars being fought in the name of God and all of that, which is horrible, but at its best spirituality should be something that motivates people toward compassion and justice and caring for one another as opposed to being dogmatic and shutting people out."
That move toward inclusivity is embodied in Mosely's chorale, which features doctors, lawyers, gay people, single mothers, people with physical disabilities, and an age range from 22 to 85.
"The connection is that they love to sing, they love music, they really love this kind of music, gospel music. I have no requirement that they have any kind of particular religious connection, they don't have to be churchgoers or Christians, in fact I have Jewish people in there, I have Buddhists," Mosely says. "The power of your music is rooted in the power of your connection as a group. I've been blessed with a group of people in this choir."
Choir members aren't required to read music, but they must pass an audition.
"Part of the reason for the audition is so that I can meet them, connect with them, and see where they are. If I feel there's a connection then we can work together," Mosely says. "The point for me is that they can connect on a heart level."
The choir is political, and Mosely is keenly aware of the meaning of each lyric when he chooses songs.
"First of all it's the words: what is the message?" he says of his selection process. "Every word in a song doesn't necessarily have to be Jesus and God and the bible, it may not even have the word Jesus in it, but if the message of it is about compassion, if the message is about justice or caring, then it's valuable."
The choir has performed at benefits for seniors' programs and food banks, but for Mosely, the choir also serves as a counterweight to the dispiriting effects of widespread marketing campaigns.
"If you don't have our product, then there's something wrong with your life," Mosely says. "If kids don't have that, they feel like, 'Once I get these things, then I'll have value.' My thing is to say to them, 'No, you are valuable because of who you are. ' I say, 'You are valuable just because you breathe.'"
Asked why he sings, Mosely replies with lyrics.
"There's a gospel tune that I've always loved and the word are: 'It's in my heart, this melody of love divine, for I am His and He is mine, how can I help but sing and shout? It's in my heart.'"
"That pretty much sums up my whole story. To me, singing is my way of giving, of expressing my love for God, my love for humanity. It's my way of telling my story."