"Get an Understanding" is a display of raw, gospel power.

Cover art for "Get an Understanding"

In my last years at OffBeat, I became reluctant to review or run comments on Gospel Tent performances during Jazz Fest. Writers and I often heard irony in secular covers adapted to spiritual purposes, and "authenticity" in performances that were enthusiastic to the point of out of control. We heard complex, sometimes ambiguous musical statements from people who didn't think of their music in those terms, and that doesn't mean we were wrong - only that we brought different values as listeners to the experience than they brought as performers. Gospel is a purpose-driven music, and that purpose is bringing people to Jesus. That doesn't mean the singers and players don't consider other musical values, but the primary value is saving souls, and that disjunction made me uneasy as a writer and editor. If my endorsement of an artist or praise for a set is at odds with what the artist had in mind, did I actually pay him or her a compliment? Can I genuinely value an artist while setting aside his or her reason for existing?

The Como Mamas' Get an Understanding (Daptone) prompts these reflections because there is absolutely nothing post-modern about it. The voices of Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Della Daniels of Como, Mississippi are the only instruments heard on the album, and more would only constrain them. Their voices are free-range instruments, and the passion they express is undeniable. Individually and collectively, The Como Mamas perform with power fueled by a clear belief in God's love, and they want to share that good news the best they can. 

What speaks to me is the seemingly improvised nature of the songs. They aren't made up on the fly (I assume), but the loose, field holler way that the songs move from line to line suggests that we're hearing their thoughts as they think them. That adds to the drama as it's never clear exactly what will come next lyrically or structurally, and the call-and-response interplay between the voices creates a circular energy that's hard to deny. 

Get an Understanding isn't simply an impressive display of raw, sanctified soul, but that's what's driving the album. The Como Mamas are inspired by their faith, and they're laying it out as forcefully and irrefutably as possible. Regardless of your level of spirituality, its hard not to be impressed by the obvious sense of purpose and comfort their belief gives them.