Christmas is the busiest time of year for choirs, and none more so than the Florence Gospel Choir, the first of its kind in Italy. It was co-founded more than 15 years ago by American musician Nehemiah H. Brown and Eusebio De Cristofaro. I went to meet Nehemiah Brown, the man who is keeping American gospel music alive in Florence.
I must admit, when I was invited to a rehearsal of the Florence Gospel Choir, I was a touch sceptical. Twelve Italians, after all, are not one’s image of a gospel choir. But their sound was remarkable. In fact, I was blown away.
The choir meets once a week in the basement of a Circolo near the Fortezza. Nehemiah Brown, the choir’s director, conducts and accompanies them, singing, on the keyboard. First they sing a perfect version of Every Day is a Day of Thanksgiving with passion and joy. Then they move on to practice, stopping every few lines to perfect their harmonies or pronunciation. After a couple more attempts, they have nailed it.
When Brown moved to Florence in 1995, his decision had been prompted by unfortunate news. In America, he worked in the financial industry as a marketing specialist and a broker. Arriving at the office one day, he was stunned to find a notice informing the employees that the company had gone bust. It was then that he decided to return to college, learn Italian and move to Italy to perfect it.
Music has always been an essential part of Brown’s life. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, into a large family (five brothers, five sisters), he was just six years old when he sang his first solo at the church where his father was the pastor.
He had trained in classical music at university before moving into finance.
It’s a challenge to summarise Brown’s life since moving here, because he’s done so much. He’s released albums, taught music in schools, made television appearances—in 2008 he was choral director for Piero Chiambretti’s gospel choir on LA7’s Markette Show!—organised concerts around the world, arranged and composed music, run a children’s choir, and founded the Florence Gospel Choir.
I ask him what it is like recruiting singers here. ‘Italians tend to be very astute musically. In the 1920s with Duke Ellington … and even in 1950s, when Mahalia Jackson was touring, she came to Italy. Since Italians are diversified in their musical interests, it caught on and a lot of the musicians began to play jazz.’
In Florence, he worked for 10 years teaching in the Italian state school system before moving to the International School. Now he is concentrating on his personal work and television. He was interviewed on the popular morning show Uno Mattino when Barack Obama was elected president, and he has taken part in Parliamo Italiano, discussing the complexities of foreigners speaking Italian.
He returns to the States to visit his 95-year-old mother, but going home has more significance than simply visiting family. ‘If you’re not a native in Italy and you’re a person of colour, it’s necessary to return to maintain your identity and individuality. You turn on the TV here, there are few Africans or people of colour, so I go back to refresh. And in the arena where I work, there’s more happening over there.’
I ask him whether he feels isolated living in Italy. ‘No. Here I’ve changed stylistically in my music. What I come up with isn’t because of the next wave, but what I’m feeling. In the States sometimes you can be too consumed by the latest trend or the fishbowl. But here I can get a better view of the world.’
Gospel music is all about joy, spirituality and God. Brown, who is also an ordained minister and elder of the Church of God in Christ, carefully chooses his choir’s repertoire. ‘I look for the message of peace and love, and the story of Jesus, and the message of hope … and you can find it anywhere.’
Next year Brown is applying for citizenship. He could have done so years ago, but has finally tired of the process of renewing his permit to stay. I ask then if that decision means he’s here for the long term. ‘Americans have a habit of not staying somewhere they’re not having fun,’ he smiles.
A place in the city that inspires you?
Difficult to choose one, but the church of San Miniato al Monte by piazzale Michelangelo.
The biggest difference between Americans and Italians?
They celebrate differently. Italian celebrations are more intimate and family based.
How have you changed by living in Italy?
I dance to my own music more than I ever did before and I write more of it.
Advice for the newly arrived in Florence?
Get an Italian cell phone.
Favourite bar for coffee?
Nespresso or a five-fruit tea, at my house.
Your favourite gelateria?
Above all others, my favorite gelateria is de’ Medici.
What will you never get used here?
I will never get used to people walking ahead of me in line saying that they just want to ask a question and the agent or person letting them go ahead without asking my permission.
For more information, see the Florence Gospel Choir’s website: www.fgcschool.net