In 1988, on the eve of a revolution few believed would come in our lifetimes, 15 brave men and women came together in East Germany to sing American gospel music along with a few pop and jazz/Latin numbers. They christened themselves the Jena Jubilee Singers and approached the music with fervor despite the fact that associating oneself with anything related to America or organized religion could be and often was considered subversion by their communist rulers.
“I cannot tell you too much about this time because I am from the other part of Germany and would not have been allowed to visit them that easily,” choir member Birgit Meyer said in a recent email interview from Germany. “I can imagine that a choir singing American songs had a very hard time. But they were fascinated by that music, especially because it was something new.”
In many communist countries there was a strong underground market for Western music if for no other reason than the state’s attempts at engineering catchy socialist ditties were such abysmal failures on an aesthetic level.
Nevertheless, the Jena Jubilee Singers made it through the tough times. Today the group boasts more than 50 members and is considered part of a wider gospel and spiritual music scene that has popped up throughout the reunited Germany.
And whereas the idea of coming to America was once strictly verboten, in an example of how far we’ve come these last 17 years, the group is now preparing for its first-ever tour of the United States. The singers are calling the tour “Project USA 2005: Back to the Roots” and dates are being announced as they are booked here.
“I’m glad that their knowledge of what is ‘American’ will extend beyond Coca Cola, McDonald’s, MTV, sitcoms, and the elected officials they see on television,” said Dr. Karen Kohfeld, one of the key organizers of the tour.
Kohfeld now lives in New York City, but spent several years in Germany, where she sang with the Jena Jubilee Singers from 2000 to 2004. For her, the historical significance of the trip still has emotional resonance.
“Actually, I think more about the longer political history, of the ending of the Cold War,” she said. “When I first spoke with [Jena Jubilee Singers conductor] Norbert Kleekamp in the summer of 2003 about organizing this trip, I realized that a trip to America was a remote dream of his. For most of his life and a good part of mine, our friendship was impossibility. When I think of how much has changed in our lifetimes that has allowed this connection to develop, I still get all tingly!”
Considering the strains between Germany and America these last few years, the tour can’t help but be about something more than music.
“I think cultural interchange is always important,” Meyer said. “But of course today, it is even more important to meet the ‘normal’ citizen or rather the human and forget about politics. I hope to make friends. But from what I can tell from the e-mail contact, nobody needs to be afraid. Everyone was really friendly.”
It is often said, you get what you give, and Kohfeld said if anyone deserved hospitality, it’s the Jena Jubilee Singers.
“They were like family to me,” Kohfeld said. “They taught me the German I know. They showed me the culture. They made sure that I was taken care of through all of our trips across Germany. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to them. I view this trip as an opportunity to pay back some of that hospitality, and I am so looking forward to seeing America through their eyes!”
Yes, but does Kohfeld have any ideas about how the Jena Jubilee Singers look through American eyes?
“Oh, it will be an interesting experience for an American audience,” she said. “They do not pretend to be a traditional gospel choir. Instead they take the music and make it their own. The group carries a great enthusiasm and joy of music, so I am sure that it will be a good time.”
“I am certain that the choir members are very nervous to sing Gospel music in English in front of Americans,” she added. “My nerves are frazzled as well!”
Of course, as with any group that sings gospel music, the primary touring venue will be churches. In many ways, the fact that the communists so frowned on organized religion has made the choir members all the more reverential towards the places of worship that agree to take them on.
“Many of them were not raised with any kind of religious conviction, but the church provided them with an outlet to congregate and sing,” Kohfeld added. “My experience with choir members is that they strive to be respectful of religious rites in every church they visit, but that they themselves are brought together by a common love of music.”
Asked for a choir mission statement, Meyer demurs.
“Is it a mission to love singing, love to perform?” Meyer asked. “We are very excited about our trip to America. It is a long journey with a huge group, and we will meet a lot of people — it is a new experience.
“I cannot tell what American audiences are used to,” she added mischievously, “but perhaps you will realize a German way of singing gospel.”