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UC Berkeley Press Release

UC Berkeley gospel choir celebrates 20 years

– From its humble beginnings 20 years ago as a five-person student group, the University of California, Berkeley, gospel choir today has been called "the finest university gospel choir in the nation" by the Smithsonian Institution, and some of its recordings are housed in the Smithsonian's permanent collection.

Young Inspirational Gospel Choir
Founding director and conductor Silvester Henderson leads the choir in 2004 during a free noon concert at Hertz Hall. (Photo courtesy of the Young Inspiration Gospel Choir)

The 45-person Young Inspirational Gospel Choir, which will hold a special 20th anniversary concert in Berkeley this Saturday, meets as a popular two-unit music course taught by founding director and conductor Silvester C. Henderson, a lecturer in the Department of African American Studies. About 100 people audition for the roughly 10 or 15 spots that open up each semester.

One reason the choir is so popular is that it's about more than just singing. The class has guest speakers, Henderson lectures on the history of gospel music, and the choir becomes a sort of home-away-from-home for many students.

"As a freshman, it was the first place that I felt I belonged," said Rylan Carpena, a 4th year student from Southern California and a tenor in the choir. "I didn't expect anything except performance and singing, but I gained relationships. Silvester Henderson and everyone in the choir is exceptional."

"To me, the choir is like a family," said alto Talia Holden, a 4th year student and a senior manager with the choir. Evangelia Ward-Jackson, a former choir member who is now alumni manager for the group, added, "In all honesty, being part of the gospel choir is what kept me on this campus. I found my community."

The choir is also very diverse in its makeup.

Before he joined the choir, Carpena, a linguistics major and a Filipino, said he wondered if he'd "feel left out" as a member. But when he checked out the choir at a concert, he said he noticed "a big rainbow of people. The diversity Cal promotes is most evident in the gospel choir. I haven't seen an ethnic majority in the choir since I've been there."

Said Holden, "I've commonly heard people say we're the most diverse student group on campus, not just because people are racially and ethnically diverse, but diverse because of student majors, the mixture of undergraduates and graduates, sexual orientation and religious affiliation."

Carpena added that he's not a religious person and had never sung gospel music before in his life, but that the first time he heard the choir sing, he "felt the energy" of the students on stage. Holden calls that energy "singing with unabashed spirit."

That spirit, in part, makes the three-hour Friday night choir meetings a joy, said ethnic studies major student and alto Chithalina Khanchalern, a third year student. "Spending Friday nights singing with YIGC is always a pleasure; it is a great way for me to end such a stressful week," she said.

She also cited the "love and respect" members have for each other and the inspirational leadership of Henderson.

For Henderson, the choir epitomizes the multicultural mission of UC Berkeley.

"It also has become a symbol of education," he said. "It's innovative in creating a home for an underrepresented music style, and it has brought a lot of pride to the African American music style while simultaneously teaching others about the joys of our music."

In addition to his UC Berkeley duties, Henderson is the chairman of the music department at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg and directs that school's college chorus, chamber chorale and gospel choir. He also is minister of music for the Palma Ceia Baptist Church in Hayward.

The UC Berkeley choir has released two albums. The Smithsonian Institution placed the first album, "The Gospel Experience," released in 1992, in its permanent collection. It was then that the choir received the "finest university gospel choir in the nation" designation from the Smithsonian, an honor that Ward-Jackson said the choir still holds today. "The Second Gospel Experience" was released in 1998.

The choir also does educational tours at local high schools, recruiting students to come to UC Berkeley. Holden said the choir visited Deer Valley High School in Antioch when she was a student there, and that its mission remains "to promote gospel music as an academic art form. The choir has visited schools in areas where students have likely never heard a gospel CD and answered their questions."

"We have a lot of students here who say (a visit from the choir) helped them in their decision-making to come to Cal," Ward-Jackson said.

Henderson said that, over the years, the choir's success has been useful in demonstrating to other universities nationwide that there is value in studying African American music seriously in an academic environment. He has written a teaching manual, "Five Styles of The Gospel Song."

Choir members praised Henderson for making gospel music an academic pursuit.

"He is really dedicated to his work and his students, and I believe he has the skill and the power to put UC Berkeley at the forefront of a movement of gospel music," said Holden. "By that I mean that he has a whole curriculum planned, and goals to actually make gospel music academic. That, in and of itself, is a movement."

Henderson called his 20 years as choir director "an historic legacy."

"I was able to be innovative, creative and think outside the box," he said. "The choir has outlasted political concerns and now, after 20 years, the value of the ensemble to bring communities together has been enormous. It's a model for the implementation of gospel choirs at universities all over the country."