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Hallelujah! Gospel Rises Again: Bap-tizum's Ben Hall Interviewed
Scott McKeating , March 25th, 2011 08:13

When Ben Hall isn't busy drumming in Graveyards, he's been amassing one of the finest gospel collections you'll ever see. He tells Scott McKeating about the roots of his obsession

Is there a more divisive genre than gospel? On paper a style of music designed specifically to praise, discuss and give thanks to Christianity’s holy trinity isn’t likely to pick up casual music listeners. Modern gospel? Forget it. But the insanely huge, and definitively old school, online and downloadable/streamable archive of Bap-tizum’s Detroit Gospel dips back to the 1930s and is more than just a powerful contributor to a genre’s legacy – it’s evidence to make you rethink a whole genre.

Put together by Ben Hall, and featuring literally hundreds of uploaded tracks from a collection of 78, 33 and 45 rpm records, this is obviously a massive labour of love. Another interesting side note to the story of Bap-tizum is that Ben Hall is perhaps best known as the drummer/percussionist of Graveyards, a trio that bridge the gap between free jazz, noise and contemporary musical thoughts/structures. Or maybe you’ll know him from the very well received LP Weight/Counterweight that both he released and played on alongside percussionist Aaron Siegel and late great Trumpeter Bill Dixon. Those readers who’ve hung out in Detroit might even know him as one of the co-owners of Detroit’s well respected Russell Street Deli. Anyway, we talked to Ben about Bap-tizum.

How and when did this interest, or collection, begin?

Ben Hall: About 15 years ago I got my first heavy gospel record that really turned me on, which was the Shaw Singers LP. We used to have a great blues show here in Detroit called 'Blues From The Lowlands' that Robert Jones, pastor of the Sweet Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, was the host of and while it had a country blues/delta orientation he went all over in terms of date and location, placing the tradition in the delta and describing musically where it came from and where it went. I heard tons of shouting etc. on this program, lot of Lomax and Folkways. It's the first time I ever heard the Georgia Sea Island music which was a huge turning point for me.

About five years ago I opened a record store here and the amount of amazing gospel that was coming through the door was humbling. However, I had made a rule for myself that I wouldn't buy for myself - that this was a means to an end. After a couple of years though, I just kept realizing that I was seeing the only copies of some of this stuff and I had better start holding on to it rather than passing on it because it had little commercial value, even on eBay, and I was seeing so much of it.

So did you bend that rule a little?

BH: I started buying pretty much everything that came in, half-ass cataloguing it and putting it in boxes with no real goal. Eventually, I had the resources to archive it and thought it better to share rather than do the obvious record collector hoarding thing.

Did you ever get into Detroit’s techno or hip hop scenes in any archivist way?

BH: No. DJing and owning a store, I've had a lot of records over the years, but this is probably the thing I've been most serious about. I’ve got the Sharevari's and the DJ Assault's, some Blue Rose, Kaos and Mystro etc but it's not my thing per se. If it's worth a lot, or rare, than I usually let it go. If I buy something for $3 but it's worth $300 then I will almost certainly move it. I'm all about parlay, parlay. And while it's unlikely anyone would ever call me cheap I do not pay for records I'm going to keep, and I don’t keep shit. I'll break someone off $400 in the store for a 45 but only to sell it. The thing is, I know how to blow a load of dough and have no idea what I spent it on, but I could never really bring myself to drop big bread on records. Even shit I found for cheap. It’s like I see it on the shelf and I'm like, 'Why is there a $1200 bill sitting there in the form of a record?' That’s not me.

Even recently I bought up a bunch of free jazz records from the personal collection of my friend I sold my store to, and it was the first time I ever paid more than $100 for a personal record that I wasn't going to immediately flip. But that said, I bought those knowing full well they would retain their value and I could flip them whenever. I have very few records I paid more than $10 for. That has always been a big part of it for me, the low end of the economy. When I was serious I would go to obscure locales and buy obscure shit for as little as possible. Some of those records put me through undergrad, and now some are putting me through grad school. Anyway, as I mentioned it was precisely the fact that these aren't worth very much that I started collecting them.

Even a cursory glance at the site shows that this is a mammoth project, what made you feel like getting stuck into it?

BH: The sharing of it makes a really big difference. It's a fellowship of sorts. It is also part and parcel of an archive I'm building for New World Records through their DRAM service. They handle all the licensing and publishing issues which would typically make this doubly daunting. Also, it's simply a matter of resources. I don't have time to archive this, but I can get some funds together and give somebody some work for a few months to get all of this up and running.

The name of the site, Bap-tizum, is a nod to Art Ensemble of Chicago album, yeah? Do you see any links between the explosive free jazz of that record and gospel?

BH: The Art Ensemble record was recorded here in Michigan so it always held a particular place in my heart, and when thinking of a title for the site and not wanting to overdo it on the spiritual/religious end, using the Art Ensemble title seemed a fitting conflation of my interests and the music. And there are certainly a great number of analogues to the nature of ritual in performance and the AACM's [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] approach to owning their commercial enterprise, as well as the way they've built their ideology through institutionalisation in a positive manner which breeds empowerment.

At what year does your gospel lust end at? Does modern gospel hold any appeal at all?

BH: It ends somewhere around '84 or 86', just in terms of what’s on the website, but there are a few things that come later. Modern gospel? Like contemporary? Not really. Gospel has always been hugely influenced by whatever is happening contemporaneously in popular music since Thomas Dorsey [or 'Georgia Tom''], who was Ma Rainey's piano player, brought blues elements into gospel music around 1930. So wherever gospel is happening, it's being secularized and the effect of the du jour musical formats on contemporary gospel is not very good to my ears. Though to be honest, it's not like I’m beating the bushes trying to find new shit.

Since gospel music is all about expressing something to do with Christian life, are you a Christian/believer? Does this make a difference in enjoying the music for you?

I was raised in and around the church, but it wasn't a huge part of my life in terms of week in, week out. My mother, who raised me, went through periods of serious and casual belief during my childhood but we weren't church folk by any means. However, my mother’s family and friends all were pretty serious about it, so we ended up in the church a fair amount - a very social event.

This is the Pentecostal Baptist church Detroit in the 80s, so the music was great and the ritual was astounding. Because we didn't go every week the whole thing filled me with a great deal of awe. That scene in The Blues Brothers with people catching the holy ghost? It was almost that crazy. That said, for me personally, prayer is a big part of me getting through my day to day but l don't go to church/temple/synagogue because I'm not so into the institution... because it feels like a bureaucracy like any other: not a judgment, just an opinion. However, here in Detroit the community churches work hard to help people, and I support that fully.

As a well respected improvisational player, can you see any ways in which these styles of music have influenced you own performances?

BH: Well, there is a lot to be said about intuition and creativity for many of these performances, and I'm a total fan of the private press methodology on a million levels. That all really appeals to me. In regards to actual performance, though, I think that many of these performances hit on something that appeals to me in a lot of music which is the mixture of the raw and refined. John Olson [Wolf Eyes member and Hall’s collaborator in Graveyards] has a keen interest in Xian private press stuff, and one of the things that really appeals to him is the awkwardness in performance. I agree with that but I'm also aware of Bridget Riley's observation on abstract expressionism, that amateurism appeals to people because it smacks of truth and purity. She views this as a negative, obviously. I appreciate both sides of the argument.

l think some of the most well known Mingus material really nails the balance between raw and refined. The Tony Williams Lifetime's Turn It Over has consummate musicianship, but [is] totally raw. Bearing in mind that Mingus and Lifetime and all the gospel stuff is all firmly within a historical framework, tradition and could even be classified as derivative but it all remains highly charged, unlike a lot of music that exists in those same frameworks.

Have you ever been tempted to play this style of music?

BH: No, not really. In church, as a kid, I would want to fuck around after service but church is not really the best venue for ‘fucking around’. Also, any 15 year old kid in a church band today could probably eat my lunch. There are some crazy skilled musicians in the church.

Ok, if you had to recommend a couple of tracks to represent Bap-tizum and to get folks hooked, what would you pick?

'Gods Going To Destroy This Nation'.

This is an absolute favourite. A completely raw performance made with what would have been the minimum of commercial concerns in terms of formal issues, but also the fact that it's like seven minutes per side of 45 so the quality is low, low, low. I've got two Rubye Shelton records, each with four songs. Very raw and totally beautiful. Makes Beefheart sound like Tom Waits and makes Tom Waits seem like Milli Vanilli. 'The Hypocrite' is on the website and is also absolutely raw.

Change Is Gonna Come'.

This is the flipside of the commercial equation. This is essentially a funk record. The Meditation Singers are pretty funky as it goes, but this record isn't gospel soul or gospel funk or some other lame eBay sales appellation, but a truly funky record with a message. Incidentally - and perhaps of primary importance in terms of considering the commercial realities of the gospel industry operating within the constraints of the greater recording industry - this record was produced by Andre Williams. Yes, that Andre Williams. Perhaps one of the nastiest, dirtiest, untoward and overtly sexual of the 60s soul singers produced this gem of a spiritual LP.