Arts and Entertainment

Preaching through the Choir

Pastor Pat Wright and Seattle
Pastor Pat Wright and Seattle's Total Experience Gospel Choir are well versed in both choral wisdom and activism. They come to Bainbridge to fete the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 25.
— image credit: Courtesy photo / Kathryn Keve

There are few better ways to celebrate than breaking out into song. Especially when it’s the world famous Total Experience Gospel Choir that’s singing.

This weekend on Bainbridge Island, as Kitsap fetes the life and trials of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people of all ages (over 10), ethnicity and experience will have a chance to join the choir. At least, the first 100 people who sign-up.

The Total Experience Choir returns to Bainbridge Saturday for this year’s creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Community Choir at the ninth annual Sing Out! extravaganza. The aptly renamed “Fil-Harmonic,” the island’s Filipino-American Hall, will house the event.

“The first year, we didn’t realize what the response would be, and we had something like 200 people in the choir,” Sing Out! organizer Gerald Elfendahl said of the first Memorial Choir in 1998. “With only four hours of rehearsal, it’s difficult to have a choir of that size, so we’ve tried to hold the choir down to about 100 people.”

That year, Sing Out! was sold out, Elfendahl said, and it’s had a similar showing of support in each year that’s followed. Sing Out! has even garnered the high-profile backing of city of Bainbridge Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who has proclaimed Jan. 26, “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Sing Out!” and “Pat Wright and Total Experience Gospel Choir Appreciation” Day.

It’s a mouthful, but it’s a fitting testament to the magnanimous occasion which culminates with a 5:30 p.m. community soul food dinner and MLK Memorial Choir concert at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Fil-Am Hall, 7566 High School Road on Bainbridge.

Reservations for dinner and to join the choir are due today, call (206) 842-2200 or pick up tickets at Winslow Drugs, two blocks west of Highway 305 on Winslow Way in Bainbridge.

Tickets are $12 for the workshop ($6 for students), $12 for dinner, and $12 for the concert ($6 for students), and packages are available. Proceeds will benefit the Helpline House, local non-profits and disaster victims.

One thing the Seattle-based TEG choir has plenty of experience with, beside incredible vocal performance, is benefits.

Last year, the choir and its founder and conductor Pat Wright were honored as ABC-TV’s National Persons of the Year for the continuing work they’ve done lifting spirits, pounding nails and raising funds amidst Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.

“We worked all day and sang all night,” Wright said in a What’s Up interview last year. “Just so they know that somebody cares about them.”

The last time Total Experience came to Bainbridge, back in July 2007 for a free event called “Gospel, Gumbo and Puddin’,” they raised more than $6,000 benefitting the South, while also helping out Bainbridge’s Grace Episcopal Church.

“They work so hard,” said Elfendahl who sang with Total Experience for about six years. “They are singing five to six days a week, sometimes two times a day, and not just in Seattle, anywhere there’s a need ... prisons, concert halls, whatever.”

Elfendahl’s introduction to the Total Experience Gospel Choir came when he had fallen into a pit of grief after he losing his son to cancer.

“I realized in order to get out of the grief pit, I’d have to walk and sing my way out,” Elfendahl said.

And that is just what he did.

From that experience, the idea for the annual celebration of Dr. King was born.

“I don’t ever tire of hearing the speeches,” Elfendahl said. “But so often, the celebrations are hour after hour of speeches ... some of us feel that there’s more in song. Having someone like Pat (Wright), we’ve become more aware of the history and the background of these songs — how some of the negro spirituals were code songs, and how sometimes God and freedom were synonymous in those songs.”

Under the direction of Wright during the 1-5 p.m. workshop, the MLK Memorial Choir will be rehearsing a collection of songs in the old traditional Black gospel style, no sheet music needed.

“I love singing without a straight jacket of sheet music,” Elfendahl said. “It puts the song out of your heart instead of your head.”

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