By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
Services at the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles were lifted by a unique group of young singers Sunday, as the 120-voice Tokyo Mass Choir performed for the congregation.
The choir is comprised of students, mostly in their late teens, from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. They have been working only since May with director Shin Ikesue, the vice-principal of the Tokyo School of Music’s gospel program, with a stated goal of performing at First A.M.E., one of America’s most celebrated houses of worship.
“We are exceptionally blessed to have the opportunity to sing here,” said Ikesue, who coordinated the visit with Pastor Richard Hartley of Haven International Ministries of Rockaway Beach, N.Y. “There is a kind of spiritual connection between Japanese Americans and African Americans, sharing a history of struggle for civil rights, so singing here makes us feel very thankful,” Ikesue said.
Church volunteer Carmen Cannon said she and other members had heard good things about the choir, and were looking forward to the performance.
“This is a big day,” Cannon said. “There weren’t as many people as usual at the 8 o’clock service, because they were all waiting to hear these kids at the 10 o’clock.”
Nancy Sekizawa, a member of First A.M.E.’s Unity Choir, was asked to introduce the choir, though she was told very little about their singing beforehand.
“They told me there was a special choir from Japan coming, with a hundred voices, and to be here at the 10 a.m. service, so I said, ‘Okay,’” she explained. “I asked what they were about, but they just said it’s a secret.”
As the choir was introduced, the congregation was initially curios about this group of young Japanese visitors–most of whom speak little English. But when the students opened with a thunderous rendition of “The Anthem of Praise,” the audience rose to its feet and cheered in celebration.
For nearly an hour, the church erupted in exalted song, with choir members and churchgoers alike being taken with emotion. 19-year-old Yohei Kikuchi was among the young singers who was brought to tears as he sang.
“I was bawling,” he admitted. “On the stage, during the song, the audience joined in…it was really something.” Misato Yuda, 19, from Fukuoka, said she let out all of her passion during her featured segment at the front of the choir.
“I sang as best I could, hoping that our emotions would reach the audience,” she said. Natsuko Takagi, a former student of Ikesue, has been living in Boston for a year and help prepare the choir for this performance.
“I’ve been here before, but this is the first time for the choir, so I think they were surprised and got more energy from the audience’s reaction and cheering,” said Takagi, 30.
The Tokyo Mass Choir has some truly heavyweight credentials on its resume, including performing for Michael Jackson and Elton John, and singing at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York. They were featured in the music video “Love Is All We Need” on Black Entertainment Television and have plans for an album and tour.
Choir member Masaski Nakatani said Sunday’s event was the highlight of his singing career.
“Meeting the people here and singing here at this church… I felt the joy of life,” he said.