“God put this choir together.”
That’s how Ineze Caston of South-Central 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--but Caston’s goal 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 more than 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,” she said.
“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.”
Caston also leads the Caston Community Chorale and teaches music and Christian education at the annual National Baptist Convention.
The music and church have been a key part of her life from childhood.
Caston was 12 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 said. “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.
“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 said, is to understand the broken heart.
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 remembered bringing in “Hold Back the Night,” a song written by someone who was seriously ill. He died before writing a second verse:
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,” 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
Caston brings out the love in people. It’s her living.
The choir sings from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays at Calvary Baptist Church, 20th Street and Broadway, Santa Monica.