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Posters on the wrought iron grill of the churchyard and on a large easel on the portico announced the concert exceptionnel to take place that night. Gospel diva Manda Djinn would lift her voice to heaven in Paris for the first time since 1997, and over 200 people assembled patiently under the vaulted ceiling of the church in anticipation of the event.
Paris has long been known as a hot spot for jazz, which was introduced to the French by African-American soldiers during World War I. But it has also become a city where the joyful tones of gospel and the melancholy melodies of Negro spirituals can be heard on a regular basis. Indeed, the musical genre has become so well accepted that groups from non-U.S. countries now interpret the music frequently here. Savvy promoters bill American singers as representing “true gospel” in churches and concert halls throughout France.
Manda Djinn is a solo artist who began her career as a performer in dance. When injury prevented her from leaping and cavorting around the stage any longer, she turned to song to express her creativity. She sings both jazz and gospel, but is better known as the latter. She has sung in over 300 churches in France, and has been dubbed as the “Princess of Gospel” and the “Spellbinder” by avid fans. Her performances are unique because she actively engages her audiences – she wants them to understand that gospel is not just a “feel-good” type of music, but one that comes from deep spiritual roots. She explains the lyrics of her songs in French prior to performing them, thus inspiring audience appreciation that is based on more than rhythm. In this way, she not only entertains, but also promotes true cultural exchange.
The Saint-Germain-des-Prés church was a fitting place for Djinn’s return to the performing life in Paris. The nave was filled with the traditional wooden chairs; the side aisles were empty. Djinn took the “stage” (the area just in front of the altar), decked in black pants and a glittering top of turquoise, crimson, salmon and emerald green-sequined triangles on a black background. The vivid colors seemed to bring out the faded hues of the walls and pillars of the church. A single electric piano was place to the side of the altar; Djinn’s accompanist, Guadeloupe Roland Chammougom, took his place there.
The repertoire that Djinn presented that evening was a mix of traditional music and songs that she composed for her musical comedy Gospel Truth, which will be performed at the Espace Pierre Cardin in the Champs-Elysées gardens on December 2 and 16. Her heartfelt “Amen, hallelujah!” incited a spirited reaction from the crowd during her first number. It didn’t take long for her to come down from the altar to interact with the crowd; she did so as early as her third song, which was “Sorry, I Never Knew You.” Enthusiastic cries of support and appreciation rang out periodically from an American voice at the back of the church, while the French, clearly more subdued in their reactions, still participated by tapping their feet and clapping during songs, and vigorously applauding at the end of each number.
Intermission was a time for people to mingle, visit the church and purchase CDs in the entry hall. The second set was similar to the first, with Djinn explaining each song in French prior to launching into it. She sang “Kumbaya” as an a capella duet with Chammougom, whose voice perfectly accompanied hers. Djinn’s voice, which has a beautiful timbre, seemed especially suited for this and two other songs that she sang without the piano accompaniment.
For what appeared to be the finale, “Oh, Happy Day,” Djinn invited those who were really feeling the spirit to join her at the microphone. Though it took a little coaxing, several people finally came forward, and the audience got to its feet to participate in the experience. Chammougom was truly feeling the music at this point, and he played with a fever that he had not exhibited prior to that point in the performance. Though Djinn left the altar, no one moved. All eyes were on the pianist.
Finally, Djinn returned and launched into “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The audience was still on its feet, and the clapping, head nodding and foot stomping continued while they joined Djinn in song. This was the true finale, and it was well appreciated. Out in the vestibule, people were crowded two- and three-deep around the table where Djinn’s CDs were being sold – probably the most tangible evidence that she had indeed captured their hearts and souls with her music.
© Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the author ofFood for the Soul – A Texas Expatriate Nurtures her Culinary Roots in Paris, as well as co-owner of Discover Paris! – Personalized Itineraries for Independent Travelers. The French version of her cookbook is entitled La Cuisine Noire Americaine (Editions Minerva, 1999).