Belfast Community Gospel Choir Feel the Joy

Director Marie Lacey on fulfilling a lifelong dream

You are the founder and director of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir. Do you shout as loud as you sing?

Believe me, I could enter the 2012 Olympic Games if they had a shouting category. The most popular word shouted out at BCGC rehearsals is 'Quiet!'

Everybody liked Sister Act, but very few of us went out to set up a gospel choir of our own. Did it really make that much of an impression?

I'm no spring chicken, and I remember well the Edwin Hawkin Singers and their international hit 'O Happy Day' back in 1969. I was totally impacted by the sound of voices in harmony bopped out to a feel good tune. I thrived on the music of Motown and classic artists like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, and harboured a dream to one day have a professional gospel choir that could stand shoulder to shoulder with choirs like the Harlem Gospel Singers and the London Community Gospel Choir.

How many members does the choir have, and where do your singers come from?

At present we have just over 70 vocalists and they hail from all parts of the province. We even have a member who drives from Enniskillen to Belfast rehearsals! Each singer has been auditioned and is in the choir because they have a voice that can tackle great gospel classics as well as Motown and pop.

For those who haven't yet seen the choir perform, what can they expect from your average gig?

Firstly they can expect to be dumbstruck. There has never been a choir like us in Northern Ireland. We've found that it can take a few songs before the audience get into the swing of things. Once that takes place they then enter the spirit of the performance and come along with the choir for the musical ride of their lives. It's energetic and passionate singing accompanied by a strong dose of joy.

From little acorns giant oaks will grow. Tell us a little about your personal musical background...

I have been singing and performing as a solo artist since my early teens (predominantly in Christian music) and this has allowed me to travel extensively in Ireland and the USA. However, I always harboured a passion to work with a gospel choir. I directed several community choirs for one off events, and in 1999 was commissioned to form a Millennium Choir, which performed in the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena.

All this served to whet my appetite to one day have my own funky gospel choir. My dream became a reality in 2009 when I advertised for singers for the new Belfast Community Gospel Choir. I was overwhelmed by how many soulful voices existed in Ireland: the land of the fiddle and whistle!

How have audiences reacted to the choir? This isn't Harlem; we're the reserved type in Ireland, are we not?

There's no doubt that local audiences are timid about 'getting down' with the choir, but it's been a rare concert when we don't receive a standing ovation. I never judge an audience by how they react because I understand they're experiencing something for the very first time. There is no precedence locally for what we're doing. But I will say that gospel music is so inclusive and so infectious that our audiences truly do feel the joy, which is our motto.

Since the choir was formed you have played many gigs. What have been the highlights thus far?

Each concert is unique because it's a different audience and so each is special for us. However, it was incredibly special to perform in the Great Hall at Stormont for The Priest's Christmas Show.

The choir are playing Clonard Monastry as part of the 2011 Féile an Phobail festival. It's a magnificant venue. Is it a daunting or an exciting prospect?

I am being totally honest, Clonard is the gig I've been waiting for. Ever since hearing the London Community Gospel Choir perform there at Féile an Phobail a couple of years ago I have wanted BCGC to perform there too. The Clonard audience was fabulous and I'm expecting the same warm and lively reception for BCGC.

We'll be performing in the temporary church while the restoration work in Clonard continues. It's an 800 seater marquee set in the grounds of the monastery. It will be a pretty special venue, and hopefully we'll receive a return invitation to perform in the monastery when the work is completed.

It's 15 minutes before curtain up. The entire choir are loitering backstage, all doing their scales. Do you have an Elvis moment? Any sort of pre-performance group ritual?

Once I get them to stop talking I usually give a little pep talk. We line up, our entrance music begins and off we go!

If you could perform in any venue in the world, for any particular person or collective audience, where and who would you choose?

From the moment the choir was formed I told my husband 'I want to take the choir to play the Whitehouse'. Ireland and America have such strong links and I would love the choir to be a representation of a new season in our society.

BCGC is totally cross-community and multi-cultural and I believe we are a great role model for unity and mutual respect amongst people. We only perform songs that promote the message of love, joy and peace, and a performance at the Whitehouse would be a platform to show the world that Irish people can and are working and playing together.

If you could have three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be and why?

Martin Luther King Jr. His is the iconic image in the fight against injustice, bigotry and racism. I cannot listen to his Washington speech, 'I have a Dream', without crying. It gets me everytime and, in fact, we played his speech at our first ever showcase concert in Belfast in 2010. The second would be Jane Austin; I think she was the Dawn French of her generation. And finally, Mary Magdalene. I'd love to hear her account of when she went to visit Jesus' tomb and found it empty... then she heard Jesus speak her name. Gives me goosebumps!

Does the choir do birthdays, weddings and bar mitzvahs?

Absolutely, and don't forget funerals! We work in smaller vocal groups for weddings and corporate events. Equally dynamic, logistically easier.

The Belfast Community Gospel Choir perform at Clonard Monastery on July 31 as part of Féile an Phobail. Check out our What's On events listings for information on all Féile an Phobail events.