By Elizabeth Doyle

Mahalia Jackson —

My mother used to say, “Other Gospel singers sing to an audience. Mahalia Jackson sings to God. It makes all the difference.”  My grandmother was a Mahalia fan as well. She used to talk about watching her perform, and how badly Mahalia Jackson would need a glass of water afterward, because she was so passionate in her song that she would break into powerful sweats. I always vaguely imagined that everyone grew up with Mahalia singing through the stereo in their homes. Yet, now that I’m grown up, I’ve discovered that not everybody even knows who Mahalia Jackson is! In fact, I would say that the vast majority of my neighbors, friends and colleagues don’t have the faintest idea. She died quite a while ago. Is it possible that her legacy hasn’t been well-preserved?  Well, anyway, here she is – possibly the greatest American Christian Gospel singer of all time: Click here.

(Turn your volume way up – it’s an old, scratchy recording – but the more closely you listen, the more you’ll be able to feel.)

It’s also worth watching this video of her interrupting Martin Luther King, Jr. by breaking into song: Click here.

Yungchen Llamo –

Yungchen was given her name by a lama when she was just a baby. It means “Goddess of Melody and Song.” Born in a Tibetan labor camp, Yungchen was put to work in a carpet-weaving factory at the age of five. Tibetan singing was illegal, yet her grandmother taught her some devotional songs on the sly, careful that they weren’t overheard.  Later, the family made a 1,000 mile escape from Tibet over the Himalayans, entirely on foot.  They landed in India, where they were welcomed into a Tibetan refugee camp.  Of course, they had no possessions. But Yungchen was free to sing.  One day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama heard her sing!  And it’s said that it was he who first suggested that she should share the beauty of her classical Tibetan singing with the rest of the world. Since then, Yungchen has become an international sensation. She sings a capella (rarely any instruments in the background), and she sings very traditionally.  She’s a huge success. She’s put out many albums, she’s a well-known activist for a free Tibet, she’s given concerts all across the world, and sung with superstars like Sheryl Crow and Annie Lennox. I bet her grandmother’s glad she taught her those devotional songs! Click here.


Ofra Haza

She was Israel’s first pop star. And interestingly, she had a huge fan base throughout the Middle East (still does, although she’s now passed away), and that has surprised a lot of analysts who might have thought an Israeli singer would not fare well in the charts of neighboring countries. Although she’s considered a pop star, her music was very traditional, even when she took it up-tempo for young people.  Her songs were based in the Jewish tradition of Yemen, where her family lived before there was an Israel.  In them, she celebrates her Jewish religion and heritage, as well as her heartfelt connection to the musical traditions of Yemen.  She grew up the youngest of nine children in a very poor Tel Aviv neighborhood. But she died a celebrity, thanks to a beautiful voice and the celebrative nature of her songs, which made so many people happy and proud. Click here.

Top photo: Wikipedia / Public Domain / Carl Van Vechten / Mahalia Jackson

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / western Sichuan province, an ethnically-Tibetan part of China / prayer flags

Third photo: Jack Malipan / Dreamstime.com / Sanaa Old Town, Yemen