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Austin Chronicle Common Ground

By Christopher Hess

JUNE 29, 1998:  In the final chapter ofthe Old Testament, Malachi, a Hebrew prophet from the fifth century BC, lays it on the line to his people: Repent or you will pay, sayeth the Lord. The message was not a pleasant one; it was a final warning, a last chance given to the people of Israel to mend their ways, for fathers and sons to reunite and recognize the one true God - or else. Malachi: "My Messenger." "Malachi of the Old Testament pretty much set the pace just before the coming of Jesus Christ," explains Wesley Bray, lead vocalist for the Austin gospel band Malachi. "And since we're facing the second coming, we're like the Malachi of the New Testament."

Look around, this is no mean feat. We live in a city, Austin, that's divided right down the middle, with little traffic traveling the east to Wesley crossover. People on this side of the tracks give occasional lip-service to those on that side - and vice versa - but little seems to happen beyond that. Wesley Bray doesn't see his band's presence in Austin as a chance happening.

"Michael was working with a quartet and they were trying to reorganize, and he had been praying that God send some people who really wanted to do it," Bray says of Michael Goins, percussionist for Malachi. "I don't remember how, but we met and were talking about music and I told him I'd been praying that the Lord send me to the right people, to do the same thing he wanted to do."

That was 13 years ago. The quartet Bray and Goins were in was staunchly based in traditional gospel sounds, a factor that they found stifling. While they had the same spiritual message to deliver, their musical ideas were different than the other members of the quartet.

"When we started out, we were singing mainly traditional quartet music," recalls Bray. "The style of music has changed, but the words - we still believe in presenting a pretty strong message as to what we're all about, and that's the gospel. In the quartet, we had a traditional setting kind of like Southern gospel. Now it's a more contemporary R&B-blues-soul mix.

"Michael and I have always wanted to go in this direction, but we were working with a bunch of guys that were completely traditionalized, and they didn't want to veer from it. It's like - have you ever been to a certain church where they believe a certain music sounds..."

He pauses and weighs his words.

"Let me explain it this way. I believe that as long as there is a true message, in line with the word of God, then I can play blues, rock & roll, jazz, whatever kind of music. These guys, though, believed that only certain chords meant you were playing gospel music. I believe in going by the leading of the Lord, and this is the direction he was leading us in."

(l-r) Walton Stike, John Acosta, Michael Goins, Cynthia Bray, Wesley Bray, and Dan Serna.

Whether the meeting between Bray and Goins had been predestined or not, the sense that things were being guided by a higher purpose became a trend in the formation of Malachi. Wesley's wife Cynthia has been singing both lead and backup for Malachi for the past six years, and according to Wesley, they met through no small intervention, either.

"Neither one of us have relatives here," says Wesley. "She just came to town and so did I, hoping to find something better in Austin than where we came from. In the church I was attending then, there was a minister who told me in these exact words, 'God told me to introduce you to somebody.' And he did."

As Malachi's lineup expanded and solidified, it became apparent that something out of the ordinary was happening. Following the precedent set by Bray and Goins' main inspiration, Junior Franklin's seminal gospel group the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Malachi's sound began leaning more towards contemporary forms of soul and R&B, and as more musicians solidified the core of Malachi, other boundaries were being crossed as well.

By appearance alone, it's hard to imagine what the members of Malachi share in common. Onstage, both Brays and Goins are decked out for a celebration of high order; the two men in bright colors and she in a long-fringed white dress. Elsewhere on stage, there is anything but a unity of appearance. John Acosta, the bass player, is Hispanic and extremely clean-cut, looking perhaps like a friendly police officer or fireman. Drummer Dan Serna, totally driven on his kit, is Costa Rican-born and slightly disheveled like most drummers. Walton Stike, on sax, could be either a hip jazzer or clueless-dad type, while guitarist Chris Tondre has a shiny white clean-shaven head and a goatee that makes him look more a punk rocker. Keyboardist Dee Purkeypile could pass for a biology teacher or a bus driver. A backup singer, a short, thin white kid with long sideburns and a jovial, stylish manner, seems suited to a different ZIP code altogether. And the differences between all of them run deeper than appearance.

"I think it's significant that we're from all different churches," points out Bray. "We're Baptist, we're non-denominational, we're Church of God in Christ, we cross those denominational lines. We play in all kinds of churches, and I think it's important that we do that, because once we all make it to heaven I don't think there'll be denominations to keep us separate." Bray laughs.

"We all read and follow the same Bible," he says further. "Our common ground is that the only thing we want to do is line up with what the Bible says we ought to. You've got other things filtered into various denominations, but we're not worried about that. We just want to spread the word of the Lord."

For many years, and through many changes in personnel, spreading the word is exactly what Malachi has done. Wesley, Cynthia, and Michael, all taking turns at lead and backup, have sung their joyful electric gospel to crowds and congregations all over Central Texas. Then, about two years ago, Goins' voice suddenly and without explanation began to deteriorate. On the day of this interview, his speech was a barely audible whisper that cracked sporadically into sound. It seemed painful for him to try to speak.

"He had a beautiful voice, a tenor," explains Bray. "He was kind of shy about leading, even though I thought he was better at it than I was. He had a voice like Sam Cooke, but he just liked singing background."

Goins' condition has lasted nearly two years. He's undergone surgical procedures to repair his vocal cords, and at times his voice surfaces again, but so far, the remissions have been temporary.

"When he lost his voice," recalls Bray, "he whispered to me, 'I know how to play congas.' Up until that point, I had never heard him play congas or tambourine or anything. I've known him ever since I've been in town, for 14 years, and I never heard it. He loves singing, and he was managing the band at that time, too, but when he lost his voice I kind of had to take over running things in the band. I didn't know what plans the Lord had for him at that time. He's worked out good as a conga player, but he loves singing, so I know it's hard."

If there is a clue that Goins was meant to make this music, it's in his stage presence. Positioned behind his tall, red twin conga drums, chimes, and single cymbal, he keeps the beat intently, spending most of his time with a tambourine or a shaker, adding percussive rhythms sparingly and deliberately. When he does embellish the beat on his congas, he plays them with unbridled enthusiasm. The look on his face as he plays, eyes riveted to Wesley for cues, says only that this is what he was meant to do.

There is no sense of the futility of human action in the predestination of Malachi. Rather they take an active role in their course, setting goals to improve the earthly world according to the higher power that guides them. Wesley Bray views the lasting segregation of the city of Austin as something to be tackled with the help of God.

"I believe that's one of my purposes for being in this town," he asserts. "I used to question in my mind why am I here, is there another reason I'm here? The way the band has come together, I think the Lord is using us to bring people together. Because we're such a diverse group, we're received very well in all parts of town. If we were all the same, all one race, we wouldn't be received that way everywhere. That's the way I look at it."

Sharing their message is something they hope to enlist help for. In the past year, Malachi has played the Clarksville Jazz Festival (now the Austin Jazz & Arts Festival) and the Austin Music Awards, both fairly high-profile gigs that brought them into close quarters with Austin's more mainstream, secular music community.

"One of the things that's stood out in my mind over the couple years I've been in the band," offers Acosta, "is the Clarksville Jazz Festival last year. Given the aesthetic of everything, I was really in awe of how God's work affects people. Everybody was into the music, and considering the setting, I wasn't sure what kind of response we were gonna get. I looked out there and everyone was really enjoying it. I saw Toni Price out there, dancing and singing. I was like, 'Wow.'"

"I was talking to Kacy Crowley the other day about the awards show," adds drummer Serna. "And she was like, 'You guys are really good,' and went on and on, and then to hear Wesley talking about the guy from Storyville coming out and telling him the same thing.... The mutual respect, even though we're completely different styles, is great. And that gives us a unique opportunity, because it helps us to evangelize other musicians."

"That's what it's really all about, in our eyes, anyways," says Acosta. "That's the whole reason that we do this. To evangelize. "

Asked about Malford Milligan's interest in Malachi, Bray says Storyville's singer was quite interested in the other band's particular genre.

"He asked me about working with him on molding the gospel sound or something," says Bray. "I guess he wants to do more of that. It hasn't happened, so I don't know."

"A lot of people talk about doing that stuff, but actually going and doing it is the risk, so to speak," offers Serna. "Really going out and doing it is making a statement, saying that we believe and we'll stand up for what we believe in - in a respectful way. We're not going to go beat anybody over the head with a Bible, but we're here to share a good message: salvation. For everybody.

"I guess [Milligan] grew up in the church - he's a classically trained vocalist. A lot of people want to go back to their roots. They have a hunger inside. We all have a hunger to serve God and the energy that created us."

In the Bible, Malachi announces the cleansing of the Lord's temple. He prophesies that God will come "like the fire of the refiner and the lye of the launderer" to sweep the unrepentant and undeserving from his presence. More important to the members of Malachi than cleansing the temples is filling them.

"We don't try to water anything down," says Bray, "but we don't believe in presenting an all negative message either, because if it was all negative, I wouldn't be a Christian myself. Where we don't sing about hell and damnation all the time, to me it's very real. We talk about the positive side of being Christians and do what the word of God says and the benefits we'll reap. I don't want to think about anybody actually going to hell."

With their debut CD under their belt [see review], Malachi hope they can take the message to the next level. King of Kings is a well-performed, well-polished collection of gospel tunes that covers an array of popular styles - dipping into R&B, blues, and soul as effectively as if there were no real boundary between Christian and secular music. The quality of the recording holds great promise for a wider audience, yet to do that, you have to get to the people - in the church and out. In entering the club circuit, albeit part time, Malachi have taken it as part of their mission to go where they might otherwise rather not.

"We've played some pretty rough places," Wesley says. "I think, if you're presenting a positive message, you can go anywhere. We make it a point to go to places that would not otherwise hear gospel music: clubs, some festivals. We go to a lot of places like that and we do it intentionally. It's all about doing that, planting seeds for people who would otherwise not hear it."

With a gesture for attention, Goins whispers:

"I think one of the most important things is the light we bring. People seeing us in a club, it could change or have an affect on their life."

"We realize that we can't necessarily go out to clubs and preach and get people to go to church," says Bray. "But, you know: Some plant, some water, and God makes the increase. Plant the seed and you never know how people are gonna respond. If I found that people weren't responding, I wouldn't know that this is what God still means for us to do. I think everybody else agrees."

Silent nods, as in the hand-joined prayer that precedes their practices and performances, indicate that this is the mission they share.

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