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Mississippi pew rockers Como Mamas bring gospel to Europe

By Alison Hird, Isabelle Martinetti

"Being on the Lord’s side doesn’t mean you have to be uptight," for the Como Mamas. The gospel trio grew up singing in church in the Mississippi Delta town of Como. Now they’re bringing their powerful, funky gospel music to audiences in Europe. RFI met up with the pew-rocking trio after an inspiring performance at Paris’s Pan Piper.

Ester Mae Wilbourne and sisters Della Daniels and Angelia Taylor formed the Como Mamas in 2007 after a musicologist from Daptone Records, out scouting for gospel and blues talent in the Mississippi region, heard their vocal talent.

“After he heard all three of us, he said our voices complemented each other well,” Wilbourne told RFI.

The trio recorded Get An Understanding, an entirely a capella album, in 2013. Their latest release, Move Upstairs, was recorded in Daptone’s New York studios with The Glorifiers, its in-house session musicians.

The 11 traditional gospel songs “all come out of the Bible”, Daniels says.

Move Upstairs talks about once this life is over. And then we constantly sing songs saying I can’t thank him [God] enough.”

The song I know I’ve been changed has special resonance for Daniels. She adapted it in memory of her mother who died aged just 40, leaving Daniels to look after her younger brother and sister Angelia.

“I had watched her try and make it, to make a way. When Daptone told us that we could sing songs that we really wanted to sing, I put my own verses to I know I’ve been changed because at that particular time I really and truly had accepted Christ as my saviour.”

Slavery and segregation

The songs are also rooted in the Deep South’s history of slavery and segregation.

“A lot of the songs came from slavery, back during the time with Harriet Tubman,” says Daniels.

Tubman was an American abolitionist who escaped slavery and rescued others via a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.

“People would be in the cotton fields and would be singing songs communicating with each other,” Daniels continues. “They would sing real loud and the master just thought they were singing but they were actually trying to contact each other, to plan their escape.”

The song Ninety-nine and a Half Won’t Do clearly evokes that time and went on to be a kind of anthem for the civil rights movement.

Daniels says it’s about being Christ-like, being perfect, and that means being 100 percent. But it also means “You can’t come half way, you gotta come all the way, in other words you gotta make it to the boat, to make it to where we said we’re gonna meet up, to the ship, to escape.”

Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Elvis

The three women have been singing together since childhood. There wasn’t much other entertainment in the tiny rural town of Como, some 70km south of Memphis Tennessee.

“I wanted to sing like Aretha Franklin, like Gladys Knight,” Daniels told RFI. “We were in the cotton fields but our grandfather taught us to be leaders.”

Each of the women played a leading role in their local church choir.

The girls’ grandfather was Miles Pratcher, who’d been recorded in Como by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. He encouraged Wilbourne, too.

“My grandfather Miles Pratcher played music and there was a time when him and Fred MacDowell [hill country blues singer and guitarist] and a few others would be round the house playing music. I started singing around six or seven. I’ve been singing most of my life.”

On Sundays the girls would take their place on the pews. But non-religious music came into their homes too via the Memphis-based blues and R&B station WDIA.

“I used to listen to Elvis Presley on WDIA radio on Sunday mornings,” remembers Daniels.

Her sister Angelia Taylor, the youngest member of the band, admits she still enjoys rap as well as blues and gospel.

Wilbourne says she “doesn’t get rap” but has always had time for BBKing, Muddy Waters and other great blues musicians.

Call and response

“All music carries a message,” she says. “The blues talks about hard times, the only difference with gospel is that gospel tells you more about the ‘end time’.”

Wilbourne and Daniels are in their mid-60s. Taylor suffers from asthma after a decade working in a magazine factory. But you’d scarcely know it as they belt out the Lord’s praise, taking turns to be “the preacher” in their repertoire of call and response songs.

“The leader usually feels her song and just carries it to the highest level,” says Taylor. “It’s difficult to breathe at times, but when I go on stage, [the asthma] just goes away.”

Daniels insists her flow on the song Count Your Blessings was just about fitting in with Daptone’s style but she carries it off.

“I don’t want people to feel like you have to be uptight because you’re on the Lord’s side,” she says. “Some people think when you’re serving God you gotta be uptight, you can’t enjoy life, can’t enjoy your music.”

The Como Mamas want to show that just ain’t so.

Move Upstairs was supported by the non profit Music Maker Relief Foundation, which fights to preserve the musical traditions of the American south by directly supporting the musicians who make it.

Como Mamas are touring Europe. Follow them on Facebook.

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