First-ever Monterey Gospel Festival brings 15 acts to Fairgrounds.

Sacred Sounds: Praise Queen: Singing the love of the Lord all her life with the Winans Family gives Vickie Winans the right to sing good news.

India Arie did it. So did Sam Cooke, Elvis and, for sure, Aretha Franklin. “American Idol” favorite and Oscar-winning Dreamgirls co-star Jennifer Hudson did it, too. And opera star Jessye Norman, from Georgia, who regularly sells out La Scala in Italy and the Met in New York. What all these artists share is that they started singing in church.

Just as suburban garages have spawned countless rock bands, popular singers have long flowed out of black churches, on tributaries of gospel music.

Gospel was born in the 18th century, when African slaves combined traditional hymns from their masters’ church services with their own traditions of storytelling and call-and-response singing, first in “campground” meetings, and later in their own churches. Using the Bible as a touchstone, they reinterpreted the message of salvation to the real conditions of slavery. Though early recorded evidence is scarce, it is known that gospel music flourished on the strength of its exuberant message of deliverance.

“Gospel” literally means “good news,” and a coalition of the Monterey Ministerial Alliance, the California Black Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and local churches are bringing this “good news” to Monterey in the form of the First Annual Monterey Gospel Festival.

“Gospel music is the purest form of music,” says Pastor Herbert H. Lusk of Seaside’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, one of the event organizers. “It transcends and unites all races, cultures, religions. There’s gospel singing in Europe, Africa, Asia, all over the world.”

Gospel music is not new to Monterey County; a handful of radio programs and an equally small number of local churches are dedicated to the sacred music. But, according to Lusk, “There hasn’t been a local gospel event on this scale, which is on the order of the blues and jazz festivals.”

Almost 15 performers—solo singers, groups, quartets and choirs—are billed for the two-day festival, which takes place on Mother’s Day weekend. Headlining the event are Vickie Winans from the gospel-singing Winans family dynasty, and Martha Munizzi from Orlando, Fla., who bridges the gap between gospel and contemporary Christian music.

Also billed is Sunny Hawkins, a stylish and silky-voiced singer/songwriter who may connect most closely with younger audiences. She has played a lead character in Broadway’s Rent, has penned songs for Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, and has produced a discography that places her squarely in the stream of current R&B. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Fret Not. “They play old-time banjo gospel,” says Lusk.

Also assembled for the festival is a group of local choir singers under the name Monterey Peninsula Gospel Fest Choir—a “100-voice choir made up of a cross-section of all cultures,” Lusk says.

There will be non-stop music from two main stages, vendor booths and a general air of worship and fellowship, especially with the confluence of Sunday’s festivities and Mother’s Day.

~ ~ ~

The Gospel Festival is organized as a benefit for local organizations fighting HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C, such as the African-American HIV AIDS Wellness Program. Lusk says that although HIV and AIDS awareness is high, the black community needs to heed the message more than ever. According to the Black Coalition on AIDS (BCA), the infection rate is higher among black men than the general population.

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Proceeds from the event will also go to Stand For Africa, an organization that provides education about HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C through in Kenya and Ghana. Lusk says the organization gives money directly to organizations working there. “The need is so great,” he says.   

The founder of Stand For Africa is Lusk’s son, Pastor Herb Lusk. Raised in Monterey, Herb Lusk went on to play professional football with the Philadelphia Eagles and other NFL teams, but left football behind to start his own church in Philadelphia.

The junior Lusk is back in Monterey this week, acting as a coordinator for the upcoming Monterey Gospel Festival. And its huge scope—incorporating private business, government and religious groups—has warranted much coordination. The elder Lusk estimates 45,000 attendees for the entire event.

Lusk hopes that the event will join the Monterey Jazz Festival and Monterey Blues Festival as an annual staple on the local music scene. Harking to his preaching foundation, Lusk promotes the event with alliteration and rhyme: “It’s gospel in May, in Monterey, on Mother’s Day!”

Though he says the appeal of gospel is broad, when asked if today’s gospel is still religious music, he responds plainly: “Yes sir.”

THE FIRST ANNUAL MONTEREY GOSPEL FESTIVAL takes place at Monterey County Fairgrounds from 11am to 9pm, Saturday, May 12, and Sunday, May 13. Tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door each day. For more info call 394-9422 or go to montereygospelfest.com

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