Once upon a time music was
not merely a pastime, singinq not just a pleasure, rhythm not only
Liz McComb’s ancestors knew
blessed time, cursed time only too well for her to forget it a single
instant. It was not so long ago that thousands of Africans became
Americans by force, their only way of coping by clinging to the
vestiges of their culture and embracing the foundations of a religion
imposed upon them but which also gave them reasons for hope.
Within a few decades (at
the beginninq of the 19th century), negro slaves became the most
ardent, the most fervent of all Christians. In spite of their conditions,
this religion spoke to them only of love, humanity and freedom -
everything that had been taken from them - they adopted it and in
return gave it in the most beautiful music Christianity had inspired
in its followers since Johann Sebastian Bach. ' Spirituals ' and
' gospel songs ' constitute without a doubt the richest repertoire
of sacred music of the last two centuries.
Music first of slaves, then
that of the oppressed and downtrodden, the abolition of slavery
(whose symbolic date is now celebrated) did not change their condition
much. “The same old shit ”, to use a common ghetto phrase : at the
dawn of the 21st century conditions are still much beffer for whites
in North America, as they are everywhere else throughout the world.
A positive result of this
interminable tragedy is the splendeur of an intact music, one dating
back ta a period when it was the only expression of hope. Gospel
has become a universel language, the source of inspiration for most
of this century’s popular musics (jazz, rhythmn'n'blues, rock’n'roll,
soul, reggae, funk ... ) and remains one of America’s most vital
and lively musical styles. Everyone loves gospel... but it remains
above all the music of the poor, of those who (according to the
Gospel) belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is why - beyond the
wealth of music included - this live album is so exceptional. On
January 1, 1998, Liz McComb gave two sold-out performances at the
most celebrated concert space in Paris, the Olympia. That night,
Liz McComb turned it into a temple full of love, a concert hall
charged with the same passionate desire of her ancestors for the
equality of races. To state that this concert was an act of generosity
would be an understatement, because Liz McComb's song is generosity
itself. The concerts were free, reserved only for the unemployed,
the homeless, the wretched of the earth, the most helpless of all
her sisters and brothers.
Most of those present understood
nothing of the words, which made the music that much more poignant.
One senses a rare communion with an exceptional audience throughout
this live recording, the “ chosen few ” truly participating, reacting
immediately and not clapping against the beat the way audiences
do in fancy churches.
The concert starts with
Liz alone at the piano, singing one of the most beaufiful spirituels
of slavery times, “ Sit Down, Servant ”, an admirable poem about
the Last Judgement filled with black humour and which assimilates
death with supreme freedom for those who have suffered all their
lives... But Liz McComb is in no hurry to die, and when she attacks
“ Why Don't You ? ” or “ Let the Church Roll On ” you immediately
think Jesus Christ would have loved rock’n'roll, and that no one
else - except for perhaps Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone - has succeeded
so well in making her voice and piano pray together as one.
Where does this energy come
from, literally transporting Liz McComb towards “ The Man Upstairs
” ? it is an eternal cry that takes us beyond musical pleasure,
and it does not matter whether we share her religions beliefs when
she invites us to chase “ Old Satan Away ”.
Then the timeless mystery
of swinq takes over, and Liz starts into that sublime, heartbreaking
song, perhaps the purest one in a long time that a singer (since
Billie Holiday ?) has addressed to all humanity: “ What Happened
to Love ? ”... The audience at the Olympia, the unemployed and homeless,
listened spellbound, in knowing silence. Yes, Liz McComb's message
can be understood in any language, her song a flame flickering from
her lips and from her fingertips : “ Fire ”, the song when the singer
uses her voice like an offering to her backing musiciens, blendinq
with the organ and drummer’s cymbals in a definitive communion.
The Olympia has suddenly
become a church : for the first time the most famous of European
concert halls vibrates to true gospel the way it is experienced
every Sunday on the other side of the Atlantic.
Liz McComb then interprets
“ I'm Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger ” for all the immigrants in
the world, followed by her famous “ Time is now ” : time comes to
a standstill, and one wishes her singing would never cease.
This album is the souvenir
of an extraordinary concert that evokes a time when music was for
countless human beings their only expression of life and liberty,
sung in a way we would all like to sing.
This album, Liz McComb’s
fifth, reveals to us her true personality : more than a great gospel
singer, she is an extremist of love who dreams of sharing her nadveté
One century ago, the main
Christian writer, Leon Bloy, said that “ Nadveté is the genius of
those who own nothing else. ”
Arnaud /translation : Jerome Rees