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Soul Music

Illustration by Santiago Uceda

If you are a spiritual person, an evening

on the British Virgin Island of Tortola can be filled with signs. You needn’t look hard for them. They come to you as in a dream. It is a peaceful, gentle place, perhaps the safest island in the Caribbean. There are no KFCs, no traffic jams, no gang killings. New buildings are popping up everywhere, but they are locally owned, brightly colored and close to the land. Roosters still roam the streets here and sometimes wake you up before the sun rises. You want to cuss them away, but somehow they charm you into the quiet morning, when the light seems to bless everything in its path — the vivid green banana trees, the aquamarine sea, the white sails as they stretch out wide to embrace the wind. It’s truth to say that if you believe in God, then you can see his hand here. If you don’t, then you wonder why it is you feel something’s missing from your very soul.

It is cool, this January night, just an inch away from sweater weather. The male frogs, inspired by the heavy rain over the last hour or so, are engaged in a mating call that’s incessant and rhythmic, almost like music. The moon is but a sliver, the air fresh and clean and aromatic from the wet earth that squishes beneath the car tires as I drive, keeping to the left, up a steep and winding road that’s pitted from weather and use, to the Upper Room Victory Church. The gospel concert is scheduled to begin at 8. West Indian time means the concert will actually start around 8:30 — could be later, but never earlier.

I park at the side of the road, behind a couple of late-model SUVs. Two large crosses of glass brick mark the walls of the unfinished church. To raise money to finish building the church — which is concrete and boxy, nothing fancy, but with a sturdy roof to hold up under wicked hurricanes — its 150 congregants spread the word all over Road Town, sold tickets to the locals, $12 for adults, $5 for kids. I buy my ticket at the door and stand outside among the crowd, waiting for Algie, my friend and a member of the 10-piece Gospel Fungi Band, one of the groups that will perform tonight. He drives his big Ford truck into what will become the parking lot, careful to miss all the 2-by-4s that lie around. The band’s purple-and-turquoise T-shirt fits a bit snugly over his belly, which he says is the result of too many johnnycakes filled with cheese, and slices of guavaberry tart. He puts his glasses on, takes out his bathing-pan bass and, before joining the rest of his group, asks if I am comfortable, being an outsider. I am more than okay, I tell him, surrounded by beautiful people who welcome me with their eyes and call to me with their hearts. When you open yourself up to the world, I think, the world opens up to you.

The platform that serves as the stage is in a room that one day will be yellow, but at this moment still has some white showing. There are fluorescent lights, sliding windows without screens that are open onto the lush night, and some lovely white ironwork that creates a kind of gateway you pass through to enter the church. I was told that the pastor himself is building the church, that he has been for nearly two years now. Overhead fans stir the air, create a chill that soon will turn to awe. The room fills to some 200. We sit close, in red folding chairs that are arranged neatly in rows. Pastor Mervin Herbert calls the "jam session" to order. "Praise the Lord," he says. "Hallelujah," say the congregants. It won’t be long until I am part of this choir.

The Young Brothers perform a cappella; the baritone voice of one stands out and pulls me in. They are unpracticed and not too bad. I slap a few mosquitoes as they hover around my bare legs. A little girl in a blue dress with a red ribbon in her braided hair sitting next to me offers some popcorn from a small brown paper bag. When I take some she giggles a bit, squirms as any 4-year-old might when asked to sit quietly. In the front row, a woman with jade-green eyes and skin the color of raw sugar reaches her hand up as if to grab at something powerful in the thick air.

Algie’s group plays fungi, indigenous BVI music from the slave days that the Lashing Dogs, the Spark Plugs and Loverboys have recently made famous. The steady four-beat is meant to inspire, to dig holes by. It’s ’50s sha-boom with a Caribbean spin, driving in a devilish, sexy sort of way. Hips move rubadub to the beat of the tambourine, squash, maracas, goatskin drum. A young man in the corner moves his body like he’s possessed. A moth flies through the hard fluorescent light that seems to bother no one. I watch the guy dancing in the corner, and on my tongue I hear the word hallelujah.