English Handbell Choir of the Church of the Good Shepherd at a recent New York Performance.
Photo Courtesy: Church of the Good Shepherd

The growing acclaim of the English Handbell Choir of the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Bronx, New York is about to intensify with the arrival of the astonishing news that the choir, made up of mostly Jamaicans, will perform at the White House in Washington DC.

“The news came as a huge and wonderful surprise to us two days ago,” the Kingston-born choir director Grace Brown Barton told the Gleaner, glowing with pride. “This is a marvelous moment for any choir but the upcoming trip will be even more spectacular given the fact that we are going to the White House with an African American president, Barack Obama, in residence for a second term,” Brown Barton added.

The 14-member choir will perform on Friday Dec. 7 at 9:30 a.m. at a two-hour concert as part of the White House Holiday Concert Series. The repertoire will include over 26 songs representing Christmas carols from around the world. The set is expected to include a few Jamaican and Caribbean favorites, including the anonymously written spiritual, “ The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy” (CPWI Hymnal #63).

The good news came as a shock to members of the predominantly Jamaican congregation of the Church of the Good Shepherd, an Episcopal church in New York. “Most of us in the group had no idea that a member of the congregation, Naomi DaCosta, a Jamaican, and her daughter Heather Turnbull had submitted the handbell choir’s name and a YouTube to the White House for consideration,” group member Donna Hylton confessed. The YouTube clip featured a popular hymn, Diademata, also known as “Crown Him With Many Crowns”. Over the weekend before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy there was a flurry of requests from the White House for more information regarding the group and its repertoire; but even at that point, most of the members were focused on hurricane preparations and were still blissfully unaware of the upcoming rare appearance. The final confirmation arrived by email two days ago,” Hylton at mid-week.

The English Handbell Choir of the Church of the Good Shepherd performed in Jamaica last December at St. George’s Parish Church in Savanna-la-Mar. The group was on island by an invitation from the Rev. Canon Hartley Perrin of St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Petersfield, Westmoreland.

“We are absolutely delighted to accept the White House invitation on behalf of the choir, the church and the rector, Rev. Canon Calvin C. McIntyre,” assistant handbell choir director Mrs. Camille McIntyre stated. “We plan to deliver a most mesmerizing and unforgettable selection of Christmas music to visitors at the White House,” she promised.

English handbell choirs are not limited to England, although the art form was first developed and perfected there in the late 1600s. The term ‘English handbell’ is a reference to the type of bell used and the particular technique employed in the creation of the music. Each member of the handbell choir plays a single note on the chromatic scale and the bells are heard in tuned sets. The collective sound produced by English handbells expertly played can be tremendously pleasing to the ears.

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