Coming alive with gospel music


Orren Tanabe stands tall above the rest of the crowd in front of Shinjuku’s ALTA sign. Having not made this a meeting place for years, the experience is proving more than a little nostalgic. Knowing the way central Tokyo changes at the tip of a hat, he leads the way to a favorite pizza dive with some trepidation: What to do and where to go if it’s not there? It is.

Tanabe is in a state of exhausted euphoria. Three weeks ago, his Japanese wife, Azusa, had their first baby — a daughter named Jenna — and she’s up in Gunma, being helped out by her mother.

Yes, he admits, it’s pretty tiring making the long trip from Tokyo several times a week, but Azusa is bringing the baby home soon. Then, he supposes, he will really find out what being tired is all about.

Tanabe teaches English at J.F. Oberlin Junior and Senior High School in Machida. In addition, he teaches a class in gospel music at J.F. Oberlin University.

It began three years ago with just a handful of students, and now has 94 signed up, with students cramming into a large classroom once a week to lift their voices to blow away the ceiling.

“Many of them have never sung in a choir before,” he says. “Gospel offers to anyone at any musical level an opportunity to participate and perform in a highly energized and exciting context.”

Offered as a class by the Arts and Culture Studies department, the choir gives both music and nonmusic majors a chance to sing their way through a small portion of African-American history, while learning a little something about the Christian faith.

“Many students have told me they are changed by the music. I think the strong sense of community and belonging one can experience by singing in a choir is powerful. The gospel choir is a place where students can just sing out from their hearts without any inhibitions. There’s no need to worry about the quality of one’s voice when singing gospel. Actually, it’s the combination of different vocal timbres that lends the “folk feel” to the music.”

Tanabe says the one comment he receives most often from his colleagues after a concert is how surprised they are at how “alive” their English students appear to be when singing.

“Having taught English in Japan now for a number of years myself, I know exactly what they are talking about. They’re incredibly enthusiastic when singing, and it’s such a joy to be able to stand in front of them and see their smiling faces.”

The son of a Japanese-American father and an African-American mother, Tanabe grew up in San Diego, Calif. With his great-grandparents buried in the U.S., all he knew about the Japanese side of his family was that ancestral roots lay in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. But still he was fascinated.

“When I came here initially on the JET program in 1995, I tried contacting the city office in Tsuruga, but it was a dead end. I was told it was all too long ago.”

After three years teaching in Yokohama, Tanabe returned to the States to study for a masters in music. He has an exceptionally beautiful baritone voice, and on his return to Tokyo in 2000, swiftly put it to good use in concert halls around the city. But he soon became worn out, teaching by day, performing by night.

“I had to decide where to put my energies. Much as I love making music, I also find a lot of fulfillment in teaching, so I decided. Now that I have a family, I know I made the right choice. But when the idea came up for a gospel class, I realized this could provide the balance I needed. Now I can focus on sharing music rather than having given up on any dream.”

He thinks he must have got his love of gospel and music in general from his mother. She loved to sing, and of course there was always the church. From his earliest days, he remembers “music in my ears.”

“The choir sings the usual popular favorites, like ‘Joyful, Joyful’ and ‘Oh, Happy Day’ but I also like to teach them some of the songs I used to sing in church in San Diego. The students are intrigued by the rhythms, the syncopation and the harmonies, as they are so different from those of Japanese pop music.”

In a break with Japanese academic tradition, Tanabe teaches them by rote rather than by following sheet music. It’s how people learn folk music anywhere, he says. In the beginning, students panic at having nothing to read, but then as they begin to memorize tunes and words, they find a new freedom. They learn how to use their ears and find new ways of expression.

The J.F. Oberlin Gospel Choir will be giving a concert on the evening of Dec. 21. Not especially of Christmas music, but mostly gospel standards with a few Christmas songs to witness the tradition.

Because the concert is in the lobby of the PFC (Planet Fuchinobe Campus), there’s space for only 150. But next year will be different. By that time the university’s chapel will be completed, and its gospel choir will really have something to sing about.

In the meantime Tanabe’s just thrilled to be a dad, and is already envisaging weekends spent in the park, piggyback rides and children’s stories at bedtime.

“Being a father changes your outlook and your focus. It changes everything.”

Phone (042) 797-2667; fax (042) 797-3432 Web site: E-mail: For further information on the concert, please call the PFC directly at (042) 730-3808.