"God put this choir together."
That's how Ineze Caston explains the group of mostly older women she directs Tuesday mornings at the Calvary Baptist Church in Santa Monica.
The choir could be described as multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural and all those other characteristics that always seem to separate people from one another. Caston's goal, though, is for them to sing with one voice, feeling the same thing at the same moment and radiating what she thinks is the most important thing in life: love.
This choir sings gospel.
The choir that Caston directs is a course offering at Santa Monica Emeritus College. There are over 40 members--all of them women. Men occasionally enroll, she said, but when they see all the women they get scared off and don't come back.
"Of course, they are welcome and should see it as a good thing. It's a place where everyone loves each other. One of our members used to go to physical therapy because she has one lung, but since she joined the choir she doesn't have to go anymore," she said.
Caston, who lives in South-Central Los Angeles, also leads the Caston Community Chorale and teaches music and Christian education at the National Baptist Convention, an annual gathering of Baptists from around the country.
The music and church have been a key part of her life from childhood.
Caston, who asked that her age not be printed, was only 12 years old when she took over the choir at the Second Baptist Church in Riverside decades ago. Being the minister's daughter helped.
"Who else was going to do it?" she said. "I enjoyed it. I used to sit on three telephone books to play the organ."
She went on to marry a minister whose church didn't have gospel music.
"When I was 12, I had no difficulties leading adults," Caston recalled. "The fur did fly when I organized a gospel choir at (her husband's) Trinity Baptist. Gospel hadn't come to the West Coast. It was the late '40s. They were still singing hymns from Europe. The syncopation, freedom of spirit and feeling of gospel wasn't accepted yet."
Gospel is a combination of spirituals and blues. Spirituals were written by slaves as a way to express themselves. Many were work songs; others were promises of a better life to come.
"Slaves weren't able to choose their own wives and husbands," Caston said. "The slave owner did that to make sure they bred strong new slaves. When they were freed, they migrated to other parts of the country. Different life. They chose their husbands and wives, and love started and then came the blues. So the gospel music is the combination of the slave life and the free life. It's really the only authentic American music we have."
To understand gospel, Caston says, is to understand the broken heart.
"I never grasped that until after I became a minister's wife--it's the life. I dropped from a soprano to a contralto," she said.
Her original gift, though, she believes, came from God, as all good things do.
"But that don't mean that's as far as it goes. God's just saying, 'Here, take it and go with it.' That's why I had classical training."
It's all about sending a message from the best part of a person--the soul. Singing what you lived. "I remember this woman in the choir, she was Jewish, who came up to me and asked, 'What is it that you have that I don't have? I want it.' And I laughed. I said, 'Keep living.' We have a lot in common. Everyone has a soul," she said.
Senior citizens are "the most resourceful people in the world. They have gotten through it," Caston said.
"I once saw a little child crawl up on this old lady's lap and ask her, 'What did you do when you were a little girl?' And the woman said, 'I lived on a big plantation. My mother was a slave and my father was the plantation owner. Northern soldiers marched right in front of me. One of them picked me up and asked if my father was kind to me, and I said yes. My father was sitting silently on a surrey swing right behind me. The soldier took out his sword and cut the fringes from the surrey and rode off.' Now where can you get a story like that? We have to start listening to older folks," she said.
Caston remembers bringing in a song written by someone who was seriously ill. He died before writing a second verse. It was called "Hold Back the Night":
I'll do thy will
if you just say to my soul
please be still
I'll be all right
if you hold back the night
"One of the black girls and one of the Jewish girls got together and wrote a second verse. I sent it to his mother and told her they finished his song. It's so easy to be kind. My father used to say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile," she said.
The second verse:
Your voice speaks loud and clear
your arms enfold me and I have no fear
Take my hand and hold me tight
Grant me your blessings and
hold back the night
She brings out the love in people. It's her living.
The choir sings Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon at Calvary Baptist Church, 20th Street and Broadway, Santa Monica. The choir accepts invitations to sing at public events.
I am looking for veterans of the D-day invasion for an upcoming column. Please call (310) 314-1278 if you participated or know someone who did.