Gospel music has a powerful following in Barcelona. The city offers an annual gospel festival, programming choirs from the US, so it’s not surprising that Catalans enjoy exercising their spiritual voices—even in English.
“People here are a delight to work with and I’m always pleasantly surprised by how quickly they learn the material, and how quickly their pronunciation improves,” said Anna Ruggiero, founder and director of Barcelona’s La Sedeta Gospel Singers.
‘‘The choir has a nice sense of group, and a bunch of fine voices, making for a fantastic energy and joy that is contagious and transmitted to the audience. I’m always surprised by the reactions we get: children, grandparents, mothers, fathers, teenagers—all generations come—and many of them start singing along when we invite them to.’’
Despite its apparent success, a gospel choir wasn’t on Anna's agenda when she arrived here in 1987. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music witha diploma in music and dance, she had always sung professionally for weddings and such, but dance was her dominant passion. Here, she started working with children doing music and singing in English, and that ignited her professional singing career.
By the time she started running the gospel sessions three years ago, she was doing jazz concerts, teaching voice at a theatre school, and offering singing workshops in harmony and melody in the city’s civic centres. It was then that the director of workshop programming at La Sedeta Centre Cívic asked her specifically for workshops in gospel singing.
Gospel is a genre she knows and is comfortable with—even though her own repertoire reflects her Irish and Italian heritage with traditional folk songs. She grew up singing spirituals and gospel music in Boston, Massachusetts where she attended Catholic schools and sang in the school choir. She had also worked a cappella, so leading a choir without musical accompaniment didn’t put her off.
The workshops started with 10-week sessions of an hour and a half each, with a maximum of 20 participants. From the beginning the spaces were always filled. Two years later, the repeat participants started asking for something more, and in January 2006 the choir was born.
Their first concert, a benefit for the NGO Calcutta Ondoan at the Centro Cívico Sarrià, followed in May. The event was well attended. Soon, other invitations followed: regular gigs at La Sedeta, concerts in the Festas de Gràcia, La Mercè, and this Christmas a combined concert with Anna’s workshop group from the Centre Cívic Can Lleonart in Alella. They have also been hired for private parties and events.
La Sedeta Gospel Singers currently has 25 members, more than half of whom were participants in the initial workshops. The members range in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties, they are mostly women, and all but two are Catalan. Of the six male voices, there is one German and one Venezuelan.
Newcomers are asked to first participate in one of Anna’s workshops so she can get a feel for their voices and they can get a feel for the music. The workshops and practices are conducted in Castilian, and although many of the songs have been translated into Catalan, all are sung in English. Their repertoire includes old spirituals such as ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Down by the Riverside’, along with gospel favourites like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘This Little Light of Mine’.
It turns out that the power of old-time religion, and its anthems, travels pretty well.