HARLEM Gospel Choir founder Allen Bailey recalls one question that a Singaporean visitor once asked him in church: Why doesn't anybody ever sit down in a black church?
"That's because the pastor will just get you to stand up again," he laughs. "We're very theatrical in a black church - you've got to move your feet and move around. That's the way we worship and praise. If you're too quiet the pastor might just ask you to leave!" he guffaws over the phone from New York.
Gospel music has become a genre in its own right, and the Harlem Gospel Choir - formed in 1986 - was one of the earliest singing groups to take it around the world.
It's easy to look at the choir now - 60 members with three touring groups - and think that they were naturally going to be wildly popular and highly sought after. One should remember though that Harlem in the 1980s was a lot different than the Harlem of today, with its hip and gentrified cache and soaring real estate prices.
"I was doing work with the children in the neighbourhood when I started the choir which is founded on Dr Martin Luther King's principles of bringing people together and giving back to society," shares Mr Bailey, 72, who also has entertainment industry experience.
Mr Bailey had participated in demonstrations and marches for equal rights and was on the committee for the 1963 March on Washington, and had been good friends with the late Mrs King. The idea for the choir was germinated after attending a celebration of King's life, in 1986.
The first choir had only 12 members, but it now recruits applicants from the tri-state area of New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. "That's to make it easier to have rehearsals," explains Mr Bailey. There's no shortage of applicants from Mr Bailey's own megachurch, the Greater Refuge Church in Harlem, which sees some 30,000 members on Sundays.
And how did the choir start touring? "We get so many visitors to the church from all over the world... that's how we get invited," he says. The Harlem Gospel Choir's first overseas performance destination was Australia, "Because that's where my wife's from," he reveals with a chuckle.
From the start, the choir members - including some who have been in it for 20 to 25 years - have been singing to raise funds, primarily for children's charities like Operation Smile this year. They've travelled over two million miles in more than 27 years. "You know, as we travel around the world, it doesn't matter what you are, everyone suffers in life and that's how they can appreciate our uplifting music,'' he says, on the choir's appeal.
In China, where the choir has performed three times, the audience didn't need to understand the language to be moved. "Most of the countries we go to don't speak English, but they understand the spirit," says Mr Bailey. "And the other thing that we advocate is to treat someone like he or she were somebody, and that money doesn't make you better than anyone else. It just gives you a false sense of security because it sure doesn't work that way in heaven!"
Pope John Paul II's comment that the Harlem Gospel Choir "is a feeling, and more than a show" is something that Mr Bailey treasures, but even he was surprised to find out that Elvis Presley's only Grammy was for his gospel album, and that he was in the midst of recording another when he died. "Elvis spent a lot of time in the black churches... and really, any famous black singer who's made it music-wise, had his or her start in a black church," he points out.
Such has been the impact of the black church and gospel music, and, as Mr Bailey declares, Harlem is the black entertainment centre of the world.
Harlem Gospel Choir, April 19, 7.30pm, at The Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $28 are available from Sistic