Saturday, April 13, 2024

Notes of jubilation


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Neighbourhoods across Canada, indeed in most North American cities, are dotted with community institutions.
They range from churches, youth groups, senior citizens’ centres and schools to mum-and-pop stores, local fire stations, police stations and entertainment centres. The hard truth is that most of them never rise to municipal, national or international prominence.
The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir is truly an exception to that standard. Founded and led by Trevor Payne, a Barbadian who left his birthplace when he was not even in his teens, the choir has earned not simply a national reputation for its rousing and exciting performances, especially its scintillating Christmas concert, but international accolades after being invited to perform for Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth.
“I never thought this would last for 30 years,” Payne told the Montreal Gazette recently. “We started this choir simply as a means of getting together and singing. There was certainly no intention of all or any of the things that have happened since.”
Since its early beginnings in Montreal’s black community in the mid-1970s, the group has moved from a choir that sang and otherwise performed at churches and neighbourhood cultural functions to a Canadian institution with a dozen albums that performed with Ray Charles and several other prominent entertainers, has gone on world tours and raised more than CAN$1 million (BDS$1.98 million) for worthy charitable causes.
Add critical musical reviews by some of Quebec’s leading papers, including the Montreal Gazette, to the mix of bouquets handed to the choir before and after its musical performances and it would become clear why the group is so well known and highly regarded.
It also explains why Payne has been awarded the Order Of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours, and was the recipient of the Golden Jubilee Medal. Sharing those kudos with him are Daisy Peterson Sweeny, the sister of one of Canada’s best known musicians, pianist Oscar Peterson, and two of the choir’s original members, Kenrick Julien and Susan Clarke.
When Payne isn’t preparing for performances and tours, he is working with the 45-member choir on its marketing and promotional activities and linking arms with the Gilead Jubilation Foundation, a charitable group created by prominent citizens and headed by Jim Hadley and John Rae to extend the choir’s reach across Montreal.
“As a result, the choir will now be able to perform in areas where we would not be able to perform because of the cost,” Payne said. “The foundation subsidizes that. We are also able to go to hospitals, elementary and high schools, and houses of worship to energize their music programmes or show them how to produce themselves.”
Payne often reflects on life as a child in Barbados before he left the country for what turned out to be greener pastures, using music as a vehicle to open doors. He recalled that his Bajan father supported the family of five children and their mother working as a porter in a local train station.
“Here, we were kids who could hardly speak English properly out of Barbados in an all-white school in an all-white area. We couldn’t leave our homes without a pile of kids running behind us and calling us all sorts of names.”
The problems didn’t end there. In school he soon got a reputation as a troublemaker for nothing more than standing up for his mother when the school’s principal spoke ill of her.
“The principal also thought I was too ambitious,” Payne said.
“He told me not to dream too much, that I would have to learn my place. He said that as a person of colour, I could not be expected to attain too much in life, and that until I accepted my lot, I would always get into trouble.”
But instead of letting the trying circumstances get to him, Payne found comfort in music.
As a teenager, he established a rhythm and blues group Trevor Payne And The Triangle, who played at clubs and schools. But when he met Sweeny, a piano teacher, things took a dramatic turn.
He was a student at McGill University and she was a community leader.
“She told me she was getting fed up watching kids with talent get to the age of 14 and then stop, because that was the order of the day,” Payne said. “She asked if I could come down and talk in the hope that it might inspire one of her students to pursue music. So I brought some of my friends from McGill down, taught her group of kids a song, and that was the beginning of the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir.”
He built on that experience and on his classroom work, completing his education, finally earning a doctorate in ethnomusicology and eventually teaching music at John Abbott College for almost 20 years.
One of this cancer survivor’s most cherished memories came the day that the Jubilation Choir performed for Mandela when he visited Canada in 1990.
“There were about 25 000 people on the site near Montreal City Hall – and watching Mandela walk away from his bodyguards and move clear across the stage to embrace me after we had done a song, that just blew me away. I still get goosebumps.”

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