Tye Tribbett and G.A., an African American gospel choir from Camden, New Jersey, with a young and extremely energetic leader, is coming to Hill Auditorium on Saturday, December 9. Gospel music tends to fly under the media radar, and even a group that can fill a space the size of Hill may not get a lot of advance notice. This one offers plenty of hand-clapping energy, and it's right on gospel's stylistic forward edge.

A twin dynamic is at work in black gospel music. One direction of this dynamic is shared with the white religious tradition and was articulated by an English minister, Rowland Hill (1744-1833). His formulation was so concise and elegant that it was soon misattributed to Martin Luther: "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" he asked. Contemporary Christian music on both sides of the racial divide pursues secular models, often at a distance of mere months.

Tribbett has been listening to music from two secular sources. One is the phenomenally popular hip-hop group Outkast, whose ambitious albums draw on a wide variety of R&B and pop styles, bringing them together into semidramatic presentations. The other is the sexy, full-throated kind of song called neosoul, which is particularly popular in the Philadelphia area, Tribbett's home. There are a lot of James Brown moves in Tribbett's vocals, bulked up in the music with thicker, more electronic modern beats. Tribbett is a follower of gospel megastar Kirk Franklin, a pioneer in incorporating hip-hop and contemporary R&B into gospel, but his range of styles is even wider. "Hallelujah to Your Name" opens with a pennywhistle (or a keyboard's approximation of one), not a common instrument in gospel, and broadens out into a big Riverdance-style chorus.

With gospel, the dynamic goes in the opposite direction as well: gospel not only borrows from secular music but also shapes it. Religious music in the African American community has always been a wellspring of new musical devices, which are really new ways of responding to an often-hostile external world and finding strength in faith. As musicians filter the sounds of secular music down to the interplay of solo voice and choir, they give rise to new creative forces.

Consider Tribbett in front of his choir, a dynamo with a new and fascinating variety in his repertoire of vocal expression. Choir leaders, drawing on the cadences of African American preachers, have always exhorted their singers to greater fervor by jumping out of the melody to add words of encouragement like "Let me hear you sing it!" But Tribbett takes this technique to new extremes. Breaking into and out of song, he gives the whole line in advance, like a deacon "lining out" a hymn in the old days — or sometimes just cues the singers with an exclamation. He may carry on straight through the choir's line and explode into more commentary at the end — or not. Tribbett creates an original kind of tension in the relationship between soloist and group, and it's one that secular or R&B singers could draw on if they so chose.

The Tye Tribbett and G.A. album Victory Live! gives a taste of what's in store for the Hill audience. Tribbett reaches the highest level of intensity near the beginning with "I Want It All Back," an extraordinary rant directed at Lucifer by a newly converted soul. "If you want it all back, jump to your feet right now!" Tribbett yells at the beginning over a wall of rock guitar descending in a chromatic sequence of four notes. "Somebody SCREAM!" Then later he divides inspirational quatrains with the choir women over a big funk beat:

Ladies, say it: you hit me hard (You hit
me hard) Ow! (I should be knocked out.)
Unh! (Things I've been through) Don't
even want to talk about. (Don't even want to talk about.)
You crossed the line (You crossed the
line) this time (you violated me).
(I want revenge.) And I want everything
back from A to Z!

It's a virtuoso performance, and if not everything else on the program reaches this kind of power, Tribbett is a master at keeping the energy level up. It should all be even more soul-transporting to experience in person.

The African American gospel choir has proven a remarkably flexible instrument, adaptable to 100 years of changes in the music that surrounds it in the wider world. If you want to see where it's going next, or just to get yourself in line for some good old-fashioned sacred inspiration, Tye Tribbett and G.A. at Hill Auditorium offer a rare local opportunity to experience commercial black gospel music on a large scale.

[Review published December 2006]