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Como Mamas

In 2005, my friend Will, Matt, and I took a trip down south with the intention of filming a documentary about local musicians. A fortunate turn of events lead us to Como, Mississippi and eventually to the kitchen table of Angela Taylor, where our journey took an exciting turn. Ester Mae Smith and Angela’s sister Della Daniels were also sitting around the table for the interview, and when Angela mentioned in passing that the three of them had been singing gospel together since they were kids, Will asked them if they might sing a song for us. Without hesitation, they delivered a rendition of “Peace of Mind” which gave us all chills. Later as we drove away, I told my friends that I had to come back with proper recording equipment and recorded them. Throughout the rest of the trip, we listened to the recording of “Peace of Mind” over and over. It gave us focus and made the journey feel purposeful. It was nearly a year later before matt and I were able to return to Como, and the three women remained skeptical that anyone wanted to hear an album of them singing a cappella gospel. Despite their doubts, they graciously agreed to let us record them singing the songs they grew up singing in the very building in which they grew up singing them, Mt. Mariah Church. Mt. Mariah is a humble wood structure built in the early 1900s. Surrounding the small church is a cemetery in which several of the singers’ relatives are buried. Notably, Della and Angela’s grandfather Miles Pratcher lies there, a guitar player, songwriter, and consummate entertainer who kept the family laughing through good and bad times. He often played music on the porch with fiddlers and other guitar players including the great Mississippi Fred McDowell. Della and Ester remember when famed folklorist Alan Lomax visited their house in 1959 to record some of these porch sessions. It was on this same journey through Panola County that Lomax first learned of Otha Turner and the fife and drum music, which he would later come to consider his greatest discovery. I would return to Mt. Mariah again to record many local singers for the album that would be release as Como Now. On the evening before the session, we setup our microphones and started to do some test recording in the church as the women warmed up by singing a few hymns and picking through the songs they would perform. The next morning, a sweltering June Saturday in Mississippi, Angela, Della, and Ester Mae returned to Mt. Mariah warmed up and full of fire, stood at the front of the church, and sang the entirety of the record you hold in your hands. Ester Mae Smith leads the Como Mamas on most of this record with her powerful, raspy voice. She is a bottomless well of spirituality and has a unique instrument that many in Como consider anointed by God. She came up during a very tough time. She says she is infinitely grateful to God for giving her the resources to raise two kids who never had to pick cotton, wear clothes made from old flour sacks, or go hungry in lean times like she did. Life has never really eased up on her much and so she puts the whole weight of her struggle into her singing and preaching. For Ester, preaching which is indistinguishable from singing much of the time helps her deal with the trails in her life. In the past couple of years she has been preaching more and more as a guest preacher. The response from people has been very strong. People can tell when someone is conveying the truth. A couple of the towns away in Batesville, Ester has been asked back several times to speak to the men in jail there because the response has been so positive. Someday she hopes to have her own permanent ministry at a church in Como. She suspects she would be the first woman in Panola County to do so. Angela Taylor is the youngest of the three Mamas. She lives next door to her sister, Della on Highway 310, which runs east/west through Como. She has a deep, soothing round voice that fills out the Mamas’ tone. Kevin and Kendrick are her two boys and they mirror her relaxed easygoing way. Kevin is a truck driver and is also a member of a local rap group. Angela doesn’t love all the lyrics he comes up with but she is open-minded about his music and recognizes the same passion in him that she has for singing gospel. When I ask her if there are any young musicians in Como picking up the old songs and spirituals they were taught at an early age she answers unequivocally, “nope.” “They want to sing newer songs” she explains, “and they want louder and louder music to accompany them.” However, Angela says that real gospel will always abide if for no other reason than the fact that people still cherish the classic recordings of Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and Dorothy Love Coates that inspired her so much. Della Daniels is a fiercely independent energetic woman who in addition to singing in the group has also taken on the role of bandleader. She is ambitious and has always wanted to sing in a big way. At eighteen years old, she wrote a song conveying her heart broken story of love lost and sent it off to Nashville. Her pain doubled when an invitation to record in Nashville returned and her mother forbade her to go, fearing that a young country girl would be taken advantage of. She later left Como for some time and lived in Memphis where she worked a couple of odd jobs before landing at a hospital. She has been working in hospitals ever since and is now a phlebotomist. Married early on in her life, she split with her husband after 6 or 7 years, frustrated because he refused to work and supporting both of them fell entirely on her. They weren’t a good match and to borrow a term Angela introduced to me, were “unequally yoked.” Della, Ester, and Angela believe whole-heartedly that these songs have the power to help and inspire people in their everyday lives. As Della put it, “we just want folks to listen and get an understanding.”http://daptonerecords.com

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