The Gospel Truth! the Deep South's Musical Roots Owe More to the Hebrides Than Africa? It's
Byline: JONATHAN BROCKLEBANK
A MOURNFUL, lone voice pierces the silence in the church. Then many voices sing in unison, producing an almost otherworldly sound that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
The eerie vocal ensemble is the centuries- old music of Gaelic psalm singers - heard today only in a handful of churches in one of Scotland's remotest corners.
But this psalm is being sung not in the Hebrides but in the U.S. - Mt Zion Church in Killen, Alabama.
It is hard to imagine a place where the native Gaelic singers' slow 'call-and-response' laments would sound more incongruous.
Yet a remarkable thing happens among the black congregation listening to them.
Instinctively they understand the music, almost as if it were part of them.
And according to one black music academic, it is.
Willie Ruff, a professor at Yale University in Connecticut is convinced the roots of the gospel music of the Deep South lie in the Scottish Hebrides - not in Africa as commonly supposed.
And the extraordinary singing in Mt Zion Church perhaps goes some way to prove it.
The moment was captured by the makers of a Channel 4 documentary to be shown later this month, which explores the professor's highly controversial theory.
It is controversial because the ' call- and- response' form of musical worship is familiar in many parts of the world, including Africa, but it also relies on an uncomfortable episode of history - the slave trade.
IF the professor's theory is true, gospel music originated from the slave masters rather than the slaves' African homeland. In effect, i f proven, the theory would rewrite much of the history of music.
Professor Ruff, an accomplished jazz musician who has played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, believes a form of gospel music was passed on to slaves more than 200 years ago by emigrant Gaels who settled in the American south and became plantation owners.
His first step towards proving the theory was to visit the Isle of Lewis, where the call-andresponse tradition, known as precenting the line, is dying out but is still practised in a few churches.
He was amazed by what he heard. He said: 'What I heard there was precisely the manner in which these Hebrideans sang the music; the passion, the pathos that is in their singing of it matches so much of what we do in the American South.
'In my mind, I said this would have been the first worship music that black Africans, newly arrived as slaves, would have heard in North America.
'This is older than the spiritual.
Within it is instilled the basic essence of the black American soul.' The Gospel Truth?, a documentary by Aberdeenshire production company Eyeline Media, puts the theory to the test by bringing a group of Gaelic psalm singers to the professor's local church in Alabama, where the gospel call-and-response form is also dying out.
Mt Zion Church is one of the few remaining places of worship where the 'lining out' tradition still survives.
For the first time, perhaps, since the days of the slave trade, the two groups sing in unison and discover an instinctive bond.
Professor Ruff explains the connection: 'Scottish emigrants from the Highlands, and the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides especially, arrived in parts of North Carolina in huge numbers, and for many years during the slavery period black Africans, owned by Scottish emigrants, spoke only the Gaelic language. …