On song: Belfast Community Gospel Choir's Marie Lacey
More than 100 strong, Belfast Community Gospel Choir is comprised of people of all religions and none. Gail Bell spoke to the high-octane driving force behind the choir, Marie Lacey, who says all you need to 'feel the joy' is an ear for harmonies
IT is difficult to find words which adequately encapsulate the force of nature that is Marie Lacey.
She's loud but not brash; dynamic but not overpowering; tough without being hard.
When we meet she plucks a spontaneous, light-hearted comparison out of the air herself – a 'Belfast Whoopie Goldberg'. Which is almost perfect, except for the fact she is white-skinned. But still, in a funny way, it kind of works.
Like the larger-than-life US film star forever associated with her Sister Act persona Sister Mary Clarence, La Lacey is the living, fizzy embodiment of all that is positive, all that is good and all that makes you just want to belt out Oh Happy Day at the top of your voice – whether anyone is listening or not.
Luckily for Lacey, lots of people are not only listening but seriously tuned in. As founder and leader of Belfast Community Gospel Choir – which for the first time this year was forced to abandon its annual auditions due to the swell in numbers – Lacey has taken on the role of a benevolent Pied Piper, drawing more than 100 singers to the ranks and hundreds more to religiously follow.
Since its inception in 2009, it is not an exaggeration to say the choir has taken not just Belfast, but the whole of Northern Ireland by storm.
Now, after singing to packed venues spanning concert hall, churches, cathedrals, arenas and conference centres across Northern Ireland and the US, the choir is preparing for its first ‘stand-alone’ concert at Belfast’s Grand Opera House on May 22.
The song list has been carefully chosen and harmonies painstakingly perfected at regular rehearsals at the Ulster Temple Church on the city's Ravenhill Road.
Belfast ‘born and bred’, the irrepressible Ms Lacey is all too-aware of the religious sensitivities in this part of the world and has been at pains to pull together a choir which purposefully transcends them.
Belfast Community Gospel Choir comprises all religions and none – and also has a multicultural dimension, with some members having roots in Nigeria, South Africa, Barbados and Spain.
As someone who formerly worked in youth initiatives in Poleglass, west Belfast, and was tasked with staging the cross-community Northern Ireland Millennium service – at the behest of former secretary of state Mo Mowlam and the Northern Ireland Office – Lacey is well-versed in the delicate art of diplomacy.
"It was quite a fine balancing act, getting that service organised,” she says. "There were four services of worship being planned to mark the new millennium – in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
"Of course, all the venues everywhere else were chosen without a hitch, but in Northern Ireland, choosing somewhere for the occasion was causing all sorts of headaches.
"The type of church was the problem, but I told them you could worship anywhere – in a field, on a beach. That didn’t go down well with some people, but the important thing was finding somewhere which would sit comfortably with everyone.
"At one point you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife but in the end I was employed to direct the Northern Ireland interdenominational service which was held in the Waterfront Hall.’
That was the “seed sown” for Lacey, who used the experience to create Belfast Community Gospel Choir – which, despite its name, boasts an ‘all-inclusive’ musical repertoire.
"It took nine years but I thought I could do something with the Millennium experience,” she recalls. "Also, when we formed, I think it was at the right time because it tapped into the new Northern Ireland; a place where the political and social landscape was changing and the atmosphere lent itself to a musical interpretation of the uplifting mood.”
You get the feeling, though, that Lacey was destined to lead a ‘happy-clappy’ soulful choir, come the Millennium or not.
She had the voice, she had the attitude and she definitely had the passion – demonstrated by stacks of albums of black Gospel soul and Motown music she had been collecting since in her 20s.
A senior worship leader in Christian Fellowship Church in east Belfast, the only question is what took her so long to step out on to the wider stage. The catalyst, it seems, was a television programme – the BBC’s Last Choir Standing which she sat “glued to” in 2008.
“My passion was immortally ignited after that,” she adds. “I suddenly thought that every other major region seemed to have a unifying Gospel choir, so why shouldn’t we?”
A visit to London beckoned where she met Bazil Meade, director of the London Community Gospel Choir, to pick up some tips on how to get things moving.
“I was so excited; I flew over for lunch with Bazil Meade and we did a workshop and I got some great advice – how choir members should look after their voices and technical things I hadn’t really thought about.
“Then, when we launched, I was bowled over again – this time by the level of interest from ordinary members of the public, people who could sing and wanted to be part of something but didn’t necessarily want the spotlight just on them.”
An open audition call led to 150 applicants – all ages and backgrounds – turning up in June 2009, wanting to prove they had the necessary Gospel swagger as well as the voice.
“It was truly amazing,” Lacey says. “We discovered some Beyonce-type voices during that first night and I remember a biker strolling in and blowing us away with his Gospel interpretation of This Little Light of Mine.
Preparing to celebrate her 60th birthday in August – with a big party and a new knee – she remains “really passionate” about the choir and Gospel music in particular, mainly for the unfettered joy it seems to unleash.
“I had a number of office jobs – secretary, personal-assistant posts – but music was always there in the background,” she says.
“I don’t think you need a doctorate in music or anything – if you have an ear for harmonies, that’s all you need.”
After a successful US tour in 2014, Flashmob renditions for Tourism NI, a sell-out Christmas concert in the Waterfront Hall last year and two professionally produced CDs, it is ‘back to church’ following the choir's Grand Opera House debut later this month and a concert at Clonard Monastery on June 3.
“It’s been a great journey so far,” she concludes. “And when I get my knee replacement in August there really won’t be any stopping me. Like the title of our second CD, I will Feel the Joy even more.”
:: Tickets for the Grand Opera House and Clonard Monastery events available at www.goh.co.uk and bcgc-yini.eventbrite.co.uk.