The Voices of El Shaddai take the stage Aug. 8 at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina to celebrate their 20th anniversary. The all-star gospel choir will launch a new CD -- their second -- at the anniversary performance, as well.
Putting the place and the performers together again for the choir's 20th anniversary was a natural choice, as the arts center has presented the Voices of El Shaddai on several occasions. They have been featured at both the Community Christmas Tree Lighting and the Gullah Celebration at the arts center, and their anniversary CD, "Our Spiritual Journey," was recorded at a spring concert in the center's Elizabeth Wallace Theatre.
Like their concerts, "Our Spiritual Journey" includes traditional spirituals such as "Swing Low" and "Down By The Riverside," as well as new, original songs such as "Witness" and "Joy For My Journey."
Comprising singers from all across the Lowcountry, more than half of the 27 members have been with the group from its inception.
"The idea started as a community choir, so you have voices from more than just your own church. It could transcend boundaries," said Bluffton resident Gail Ragland, longtime manager and one of the Voices' founders. "And it was for people who want to do more singing than they do in church."
While their music is unique, it is characteristic of worship on the Sea Islands.
"Now, the choir is not all Gullah. I'm from Aiken, for example," Ragland said. "When I came here in 1988 and started attending First African Baptist Church, the melodies and harmonies and rhythms of the music I heard were familiar. It was the sound of the words that made this unique to me. The Gullah language brought different vowel sounds."
Audiences from the beginning found that their spirits were not the only things that rose up wherever the Voices of El Shaddai performed. Concerts, civic and worship events, even weddings, saw people on their feet and moving with the music.
"The Voices of El Shaddai promote and preserve a very important part of our island culture and heritage," said arts center president and CEO Kathleen Bateson. "And their music is inspirational, with an energy that leaps out and touches people."
Thankful for their success, the Voices all along made community service a priority.
"In a way, every performance is a giveback," Ragland said. "We're grateful to have the ability and the opportunity."
But even as their reputation has grown, their booking policy remains the same: "If you want us, we'll come."