Bringing in the Sheaves: The Samuels of Chennai

You sing like angels. Yes, you do. Why don’t you record your songs professionally?

Twenty-five year old Joel Samuel and his twin brothers, Johan Paul Samuel and Jowin Sam Timothy Samuel (22), heard such comments with increasing regularity. The brothers, residents of Chennai, India, had been making home videos of their gospel song performances using mobile phones, and posting them on YouTube and Facebook. Their audience felt that their talent deserved to be better presented to reach new audiences.

Over the last couple of years, the brothers had finessed their vocal abilities by unflagging practice. They worked on their enunciation; they studied and emulated the traditional quartet singing style. Their diligence paid good dividends. They now were a solid trio: Johan, the lead, singing baritone, Joel, bass, and Jowin (Chinni to his friends), high tenor. They recorded a couple of songs after saving money for a studio session. One of them was When They Ring the Bells of Heaven, a southern gospel song co-written by Albert E. Brumley (best known for the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away”) and Marion W. Easterling. “We didn’t use any sheet music for the song,” they said. “Instead, we listened to many versions and arrangements of this song and produced our own version.”

Apart from their dapper looks and vocal dynamics, the Samuels also spoke eloquently using body language. In many of their previous videos, they had mostly stood still, their expressions tending toward the serious. Now they radiated bonhomie, smiles lighting up their faces, a neat turn or tilt of the head here, a gentle sway of the body there. That’ll be a happy morning, everybody singing, shouting ― we didn’t just hear it, we saw it.

The Samuels’ rendition of When They Ring the Bells of Heaven made waves on the Internet

They took the Internet by storm. Viewers rocked their bodies, clapped their hands, stamped their feet, and sang along. The brothers were happy and proud that their singing was so well received, and that the gospel had reached a wide audience through their effort. Friends and even casual acquaintances eagerly claimed the Samuels as their own. Others declared that the Samuels hailed from none other than their part of Tamil Nadu. But among the bouquets were some brickbats. An American music firm in Tennessee contend that the Samuels borrowed from one of their tracks, something that the brothers have denied.

Most people from various parts of the world were watching the brothers for the first time, and they wondered: just who were these talented youngsters, the Samuels? The posts described as Scottish-born. Legions of their friends and acquaintances who knew better flooded the Samuels with screenshots of such posts.

“We don’t know from where it (the rumour) started,” The brothers were perplexed, especially as they have no ties to Scotland. “But it spread like wildfire on all social media platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter ― and we couldn’t do anything about it.”

The brothers become singers

Samuel Vedabose and his wife Jasmine Samuel come from a village near the town of Nazareth in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, far, far away from Scotland. Their three sons were born and raised in Chennai. During family worship, their parents introduced them to traditional Christian hymns in Tamil and English.

“We would be proud to claim that God was our teacher and instructor, but there were many others who inspired and guided us,” Joel said. The first of these were their parents. Their father was a bass singer in his church choir and he guided them in the art of song. Their mother introduced them to hymn books and made them sing regularly. The Samuels are a middle class family. The father runs a grocery business, the mother is a school teacher, and at that time, they could not afford music or voice lessons for their boys. When they turned eight, the boys joined their church choir where they learnt the fundamentals of choral music. And Jasmine Samuel diligently signed up her sons for any singing opportunity at their church.

During their summer and winter holidays, the Samuels made trips to their ancestral village in the deep south of Tamil Nadu. These were often family affairs, uncles, aunts, cousins, family friends all visiting at the same time. Young Joel, Johan and Jowin had a whale of a time, bathing in wells and field canals with the other children and playing all sorts of games. They also listened to church choirs in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, marvelling at how the so many voices wove one into the other in harmony. We should also do this one day, they thought. The seed was sown, and years later, two choral groups in Chennai furthered their interest: the GATT Quintet, the brainchild of the veteran singer Samuel Grubb and his associates, and the Octet Cantabile founded by the respected musician and music educator, Augustine Paul.

In time, Joel acquired the confidence to sing with choral groups in Chennai; Johan and Jowin followed. The way each group approached a choral composition was a learning experience. Their time with the J7 Harmonic Circle was particularly significant. They, along with other members of the group, freely experimented with voice and song. It was here that the Samuels began to sing in the genre that they would make their own in the future: southern gospel.

As their interest in southern gospel deepened, the brothers made it a habit to listen to various country quartets and bands who sang it. Their trained themselves by listening attentively and then singing along with these groups. Now they make their own harmonies for the southern gospel songs they sing.

Their experience with musical instruments was a mixed one. They took piano and violin lessons as children, but Jowin and Johan dropped out, preferring to concentrate on the musical instrument they were most comfortable with: their voice.

The versatility of the human voice ― The Samuels’ a cappella version of  In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning, a Negro Spiritual popularized by Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, and many others

A short version of Amazing Grace, sung a cappella.

In middle school, Joel took piano lessons for a few months, and he now plays the piano, the accordion, and the organ.

Joel Samuel may not be Scottish-born but he can play Scottish music! Auld Lang Syne, pianoaccordion duet with Rex Ward.

The brothers form a vocal trio

Choirs could not perform in public during the Covid-19 pandemic with its protracted lockdowns. But, as Shakespeare wrote, sweet are the uses of adversity. If the brothers could not sing publicly, they would form their own little choir. They banded into a trio, recording their songs at home with a mobile phone and posting them on YouTube and Facebook, so that people isolated in their houses could access them and feel connected.

Their first song as a trio was a Sunday school song, இயேசு வந்த வீட்டில் சந்தோஷமே (Happy is the home that Jesus enters), sung to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. An early indication of their innovation was the segue from Tamil lyrics to the refrain of the Battle Hymn in English.

The first recording of The Samuels as a trio

More recordings followed, and the trio learnt to make arrangements best suited for their voices. Their focus was southern gospel and Tamil hymns. “Our ultimate objective is to spread the gospel,” they said. “We chose these two categories because we relish hymns for their choral arrangements, harmony, and theologically sound lyrics, and we chose southern gospel music as our primary genre because we enjoy it. It is upbeat, and it gives us the strength to clearly express our unique voices and proclaim the gospel. Who doesn’t enjoy country or southern gospel music?”

Gospel Music

In the 18th century, the predominant form of Christian vocal music was the hymn. Hymns were usually slow, melodic, set to meter and addressed to God; they were categorized as songs of praise and worship. In the 1730s, a Protestant evangelical revival movement, The New Awakening, spread across England and its North American colonies. In the New England colonies, the influential preacher Reverend Jonathan Edwards concluded that hymns didn’t work for his revival services. Songs with faster tempos were created, songs that were not addressed to God as offerings of worship. Rather, they were about God and about a religion-centred life. This type of music, later called gospel music, spread down the coast and reached the southern United States. It took on a new shape there.

a) Negro Spirituals

The use of African slaves was an established practice in the American South. Slaves were forced, often under torture, to forget their African religions, culture, and heritage. They had to adopt the ways of their masters, including their masters’ faith. Their conversion to Christianity was secondary; the primary purpose was to destroy their individual identities, uproot them from their traditions, break their spirit, and “tame” them to a life of subjugation.  Singing African songs was punishable, but singing Christian songs was not. The slaves began singing gospel music.

The similarities between the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and their own situation was not lost on the plantation slaves. They could relate to Old Testament prophets like Daniel, Moses and David who underwent tribulations and suffering. The freedom of the afterlife in the songs was akin to their freedom from bondage. They used gospel songs to code in messages of support and hope to each other. The Negro Spiritual was born.

Canaan Land became a code word for Canada, the land of freedom that contrasted with cruel, oppressive America.  Going up yonder meant fleeing north. “Moses” referred to Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad that the slaves took to freedom, implied in the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The “swinging low” of the chariot refers to the rock-and-swing motion of a train. River Jordan was code for the Ohio River, a destination on the Underground Railroad. With this in mind, one hears songs like “Canaan Land Is Just In Sight” with new ears.

“Canaan Land Is Just In Sight” – listen in the context of the slave experience

In 1892, Czech virtuoso Antonín Dvořák came to the United States to serve as the new director of the National Conservatory of Music. Dvořák was keen for Americans to develop their own national music, and was captivated by Negro Spirituals. He wrote:

 . . inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. . . . The most potent as well as most beautiful among them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland.

Amid an unimaginably painful existence, slaves used these songs to inspire inner strength and courage. It took a foreigner like Dvořák to recognise that Negro spirituals were the first authentic American sacred music.

Down By the Riverside was used as a work song by plantation slaves as they laboured in the cotton, sugar and rice fields

b) Black Gospel and Jubilee Quartets

As slavery was abolished and the Emancipation established, African-Americans started moving to the mainstream. The songs now were not double entendres; there was no need to code in messages. They now meant literally what they said.

New variations of gospel music evolved. African-Americans had created jazz and the blues, and these joined forces with Negro Spirituals to form Black Gospel. A characteristic feature is the choir or soloist repeating or answering the lyric just sung by the other, with improvisations. Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers were noted performers. Black Gospel as a distinct form dwindled after the 1970s.

Another type of gospel music known as the Jubilee Quartet was birthed at the historically Black colleges and universities. It started at Fisk University, with the Tuskegee Institute and Hampton and Wilberforce universities following. Independent groups like The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Dixie Hummingbirds also performed this form of gospel music. They generally embrace one of three styles: “sweet” (softer vocals), “hard” (energetic, with accentuated physical gestures), or “sweet and hard” (a combination).

c) Southern Gospel

White musicians also took up gospel singing and called this subgenre Southern Gospel, to distinguish itself from Black Gospel. Southern Gospel as a musical entity is generally considered to have started in 1910 when James Vaughan of Tennessee formed a quartet, but the form itself existed for at least three decades prior. Traditionally the quartets were all male, with a tenor-lead-baritone-bass structure singing close harmonies. They sang a cappella or were accompanied only with piano, guitar or banjo. Later, there were women singers and full bands, and elements from other forms like bluegrass and cowboy music were sometimes added. The Happy Goodmans, The Speers, The Cathedrals, Bill and Gloria Gaither, and The LeFevre Quartet are examples.

Johan and Jowin Samuel’s mellow rendition of Won’t It Be Wonderful There? a gospel song about the afterlife written in 1930 by James Rowe three years before his death, with music by Homer Franklin Morris

The Samuels’ own influences from American gospel groups include The Cathedrals, the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Blackwood Brothers, and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound. The Samuels are in touch with various American southern gospel singers and groups. They encourage and support each other, and share tips to finetune their performances. Occasionally even a noted artist like Ernie Haase has commented on their videos.

Bringing in the Sheaves

The Samuels are not hung up on the latest craze in gospel music. They believe that old is gold. Joel, a student of theology, feels that contemporary gospel songwriters don’t have a grasp on theology as good as what writers and composers immediately following the Reformation had. So they select old songs which communicate the faith, songs that have stood the test of time across generations although some of them may have largely been forgotten.

An example is Bringing in the Sheaves, a gospel song written in 1874 by Knowles Shaw, inspired by Psalm 126:6: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

The Samuels sing a 19th century gospel song in the 21st, with Arul Danie on the guitar

In some ways, the lyrics mirror the Samuels’ own musical journey.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,

Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;

Finances prevented the brothers from taking formal music lessons, regarded as the traditional learning route (sowing in the sunshine). They taught themselves by participating in church choirs and singing groups. Though this is generally viewed as a lesser way of learning (sowing in the shadows), people who are largely self-taught often pick up things that aren’t imparted in a classroom. Clouds and chilling breeze did not deter the Samuels from their sowing.

By and by the harvest, and the labour ended,

We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Now they are bringing in their sheaves, but slowly. They have performed live only thrice thus far. They began singing during the pandemic, so recitals were virtual. Invitations for live concerts are now coming their way, including from venues outside of Tamil Nadu. But there is a snag. The brothers are apart for most of the year. Johan and Jowin are Masters’ students in Chennai but Joel studies theology at Serampore College in West Bengal and comes to Chennai only during summer and winter breaks.

So Jowin and Johan sing with other choirs for now. After Joel’s graduation when the three are together again, live concerts are on the cards. Until such time, they plan on posting recordings on their YouTube channel. If this prospect seems dampening, cricket helps ―and the brothers are ardent cricketers who play regularly with their friends. All three bowl medium pace and know they have to keep at it over after over until they bag a wicket. After all, When They Ring The Bells of Heaven went viral five months after they posted it. And like all male singers, the Samuels had to deal with their voices breaking. Joel’s choirmaster helped him in the transition; Jowin and Johan minimised their singing while adjusting to their new voices.

Their long term plan: become “a full package for proclaiming the gospel through upbeat music and simple harmony, as well as to bring and peace into people’s lives through our songs.” That is, they will offer a full concert of ten to fifteen songs, with the option of a short sermon during the intermission.

Music, like all art, takes on a life of its own, transcending the intentions the composer. And sacred music is no exception. One of the greatest music composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, was a deeply religious man who wrote a large compendium of sacred music as well as secular music. He began his manuscripts of sacred music with the inscription JJ (Jesu Juva; Jesus, help me). When he finished the composition to his satisfaction, he wrote at the end, SDG (Soli Deo Gloria—“To God alone, the glory”). Composers like George Frideric Handel and Christoph Graupner also used SDG to signify that the work was produced to honour God.

Composers of ecclesiastical music held the hope that their art would draw listeners closer to God. While their music may certainly have done this down the centuries, it has also captivated people of all faiths and of no faith by the sheer brilliance of the compositions. One can listen to Schubert’s Ave Maria, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Haydn’sThe Creation, and Mozart’s Requiem, completely moved by the music on its own.

Likewise, as the Samuels grow as a group to reach their potential, it should be no surprise if their music attracts an audience that goes well beyond gospel music enthusiasts.