The Como Mamas: A Vocal Trinity
inThe Artistson February 28, 2017
I had the same conversation over and over again when I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation on contemporary black gospel music. When I spoke to older churchgoers—dozens of them, in central North Carolina and Houston, Texas—they always told me the same thing. It went something like this: “Contemporary gospel is OK. It’s exciting, uplifting. It’s inspirational. But, the older stuff, see, it could get you through.” Almost always, it was that same phrase, “get you through.” The more time I spent with these folks, the more I understood what they meant. If you find yourself in a place that seems impossible—a situation that you can’t understand, or don’t have the financial or emotional resources to handle, a moment of existential paralysis—the older gospel music can save you, it has the power to move you out of that situation.
The Como Mamas sing the get-you-through kind of gospel. These three women from Como, Mississippi—Ester Mae Smith, Angelia Taylor, and Della Daniels—sing with no instrumental accompaniment, just a vocal trinity delivering the encumbered message of good news, the gospel.
Mostly they sing what gospel music scholar, Civil Rights activist, and vocalist Bernice Johnson Reagon calls “‘I’ songs”—“God is Good to Me,” “I Know it Was the Blood,” “Soon I Will Be Done.” “In the black community” Reagon explains, “when you want the communal expression everybody says ‘I.’ So if there are five of us here and all of us say ‘I,’ then you know that there’s a group. The ‘I’ songs are very important. It really is a way of saying that the life that I have, I will offer to this thing [communal goal].” Ultimately, for Reagon, the group is more powerful because each individual member retains a distinctive identity.
The Como Mamas demonstrate this kind of unity that has been so central to the development of African American history. Their three voices do not merge indistinguishably into one, but rather create a collective sound all the more moving because each individual voice remains clear. In a review of the Como Mama’s record Get an Understanding, ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley celebrated the “imperfectly harmonic” relationship between their voices. And it is in this perfect imperfection, this slippage, this coming together of three individual voices each singing the song and not just the notes, that a vector of energy is created. This energy is what moves people. This is the energy that “gets you through.”
This Black History Month, it’s worth taking the time to listen to the Como Mamas. The way they sing has something important to teach us about how to come together as a group—“on one accord,” as church folks say—without sacrificing our individuality. And the sound they produce has something to teach us about the will to thrive, no matter the circumstances. In this time when bad news is all too easy to come by, let the Como Mamas bring you the good news.
— Will Boone Phd