Gospel doesn’t get much play in the mainstream these days, but it’s alive and well. The casual listener might only encounter it through established stars who are grounded in the form but not beholden to it—Aretha Franklin, R. Kelly, Mavis Staples, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston. But a couple of years ago, Marvin Sapp’s album Here I Am debuted at #2 on the billboard charts (the first gospel album ever to debut that high). BET has a gospel music reality television show. A gospel release pops up every now and then in the New York Times Sunday playlist column. And reissue labels like Numero have been helpful in turning up old gospel recordings from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Turns out that when you look, gospel, like the good Lord, is everywhere.
Most of that gospel acknowledges and interacts with its musical descendants—the blues, soul, funk. Unusually, the new album from the Como Mamas, Get an Understanding, does not mix and match. It’s three Mississippi ladies singing spirituals, unaccompanied by a backbeat, bass, or guitar riff, working proudly (though pride is a sin, so maybe humbly) in a medium of direct expression.
The group first appeared on a 2006 a cappella gospel compilation recorded during one afternoon in a Mississippi church by the Daptone label. Now the Mamas—Ester Mae Smith and the sisters Angela Taylor and Della Daniels—get an album all to themselves.
Smith takes the lead with her huge, honking voice. (Takes may not be the right word, since I am sure Taylor and Daniels offered it to her graciously, but even if they hadn’t, Smith’s voice is a combustible battering ram, the kind of thing that ends up in the lead even if it has to break walls and windows to get there.) Taylor and Daniels work the echoes and the counterpoints, offering support, agreement, and a crutch in case Smith ever needed one, coloring in the sound.
History is important in any art. Gospel’s descendants are all valuable, but they shouldn’t always overshadow their common ancestor. The Como Mamas sing a version of “One More River to Cross”, but hopefully they won’t be crossing any time soon.