EKKLESIA. A REVIVAL OF AMERICAN HYMNS.
Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is in the heart of a country steeped in tradition, storytelling, religion, and music. All of these elements seem to come together in the album “Stories We Had Forgotten,” a collection of classic American hymns made new in a unique treatment by the band Ekklesia (the emphasis is on the “si”), some dozen musicians from the Hattiesburg “community of faith” of the same name.
“Our goal was to take songs that have been cast aside as irrelevant and make something fresh and beautiful,” band leader Toby Barker explains to ChristianMusic. “We wanted this to be one of the best hymns albums around.”
Hattiesburg is also in the heart of a country that is still rebuilding itself from one of the world’s worst natural disasters. This sense of renewal, if you will, is a part of Ekklesia’s geography, as well as their music and their spiritual lives. The album’s graphics and the band’s photo are in a Depression-era style; Barker explains the theme as centering on a 1930s traveling Revival band.
Revival indeed. “On a musical level, while we all like and play modern worship music,” Barker says, “we recognize the timeless value and depth of the hymns and sacred songs passed down to us over the centuries. To take those, evolve them, and love them was a great experience.”
“Our culture is very good at putting labels on what is considered new or in style,” percussionist Daniel Krebs says, “but those categories do not work for God. That’s why this music, and these stories, that were written years ago, still speak to us now.”
Some of the members of Ekklesia have played together for a decade, and some for just the three years that the church Ekklesia has existed. Many have roots in Southern music. Drummer and vocalist James Wilcox grew up singing in a traveling family band around the South. The father of Lindsey Smith, piano, accordion and vocals, was a professional bass player in a rock band that opened for Dolly Parton.
Justin Dallriva inherited the banjo from his father. Vocalist Kate Barker has even sung at Carnegie Hall, with her high-school choral group. Toby Barker’s grandfather played for three weeks with the Glen Miller band during World War II.
Several members of the group, which includes vocalists Cash Carr and Sharon Miles, bass players Josh Thomas and Kevin Scott, pianist and organist Steve Adamson, and Zach Jones and Taylor Willis on violin, are pursuing their own musical careers besides playing at Ekklesia.
Facetiously describing the band’s music as “folk rock that goes the extra mile,” they sum it up, “When you're from the region that spawned the best of American music -- jazz, blues, country, rock and zydeco -- your own music becomes a melting pot of that heritage.”
“Most of us grew up in church,” says Barker. “We came from very traditional worship backgrounds, and in recent years have begun to swing back and embrace the songs from our youth, just in a much more creative way.”
Part of that more creative way, for instance, can be found on the song “Marching to Zion,” Barker’s favorite song on the album. While working on it, he couldn’t get Chris Tomlin’s “City of God” out of his head. “The bridge of that song, ‘Greater things are left to be done in this city,’ stuck with me,” Barker says. “The mission never ends. When we begin to bring the Kingdom of God to a community and its people, we must remember that greater things are still to be done.” So they “teamed” the two songs together.
On Sharon Miles’ favorite song, “This is My Father’s World,” they added a new chorus, “It’s a beautiful sound when the lonely are found.” As Miles attests, “That really resonates with my story. I know what it feels like to be in a room full of people and still feel alone.” Says Miles. “I remember the ‘beautiful sound’ of the hope and love of Christ coming into my life.”
The band is giving a big portion of the proceeds from the album to one of the poorest schools in south Mississippi, Hawkins Elementary school. The Ekklesia church is highly invested in the school, tutoring, mentoring, and programming parent education there. More than just an outreach program, the church website phrases it as, “the focus of our attention during this time.”
“Ekklesia has transformed my way of thinking about what a faith community is supposed to be,” says vocalist and banjo player Justin Dallriva, “and how we engage the world.”
Krebs, quoting Second Corinthians, equates that transformative, renewing power of the hymns to redemption. The music, he says, “speaks of the redemptive nature of God. It’s beautiful and powerful and it’s what I love about our God.”
Dallriva agrees, pointing out that as the band has revived the songs, they’ve been revived by them. “In the same way that [the church] Ekklesia shed new light on what following Christ truly means for me,” Dallriva says, “playing with the band has done the same for these hymns.”
-- Julie Carr and Nate Lee