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Israel Houghton: Still Standing

By Laura J. Bagby – Maybe you have heard of him. He’s the one who has made such contemporary gospel songs as “You Are Good,” “Friend,” and “Friend of God” popular. This passionate worship leader at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston and frontman for his internationally touring band, New Breed, is a man gifted musically and gifted with tremendous faith in God, a mix that comes through loud and clear on his albums.

But don’t try to pay Israel Houghton a compliment. If you do, this humble artist will just laugh uncomfortably and tell you straight, “I am good at encouraging others, but I will say up front that I am not really good at receiving it.”

Houghton is quick to put his role in the body of Christ in proper perspective. “I have never looked at this as employment or a living or a means to an end. It really is what I was born for.”

Like his Grammy-nominated, certified gold album Live From Another Level (Integrity Gospel, 2004), Houghton’s latest album, Alive in South Africa (Integrity Gospel), which released October 25, is also a two-disc set. Only this project was the fulfillment of a longtime dream.

Houghton first traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1994 and fell in love with the area. As he told me, “I felt very much at home, I felt graced to do what I was doing, and I just felt like a different person there. I just connected with the culture, connected with the country, connected with the people there so well.” The desire to produce a live recording in South Africa was born, and this year it finally came to fruition.

The Alive project began in the studio in May, and then really got serious when Houghton and co-producer and co-writer Aaron Lindsay began to nail down the concept for the new album within the span of a mere six hours at Houghton’s abode.

Talking about the process he and Lindsay took at this stage in album production, Houghton explained, “We are the type of guys that don’t record songs, we design records. . . . We tend to look at it from above rather than from in it, and once we get the whole picture, then it is very easy to go from that point to going back to the band and saying, ‘Here’s the whole record.’ ”

As well-planned as the album was during the pre-recording phase, nothing could prepare Houghton and the New Breed for the kind of spiritual warfare they would encounter during their two-week stay in Cape Town in August for the live recording.

“Nobody ever said it was going to be easy,” Houghton offered. “It definitely felt like there was resistance that was way beyond people’s personalities. We were definitely up against some things.”

There were moments when Houghton felt discouraged by what seemed like a spiritual assault from the enemy. But, Houghton told me, “I really just felt this peace that the Lord said, ‘It’s not an attack; it’s a counter-attack. You’ve already made it know you are there for kingdom business, so this is the response to that.’ ”

Surprisingly, the type of resistance that Houghton initially experienced in South Africa was from the Christian community.

“We discovered the place as far as the church was concerned was very territorial and very ‘if you guys are doing it there, we aren’t going to come’; ‘if you do it at that guy’s church, then these guys aren’t going to come,’ ” Houghton revealed.

Because of the disunity they experienced, Houghton and his band decided to do everything themselves. So they produced their own tickets and posters, and arranged for their own ground transportation, security, lighting, and cameras.

“It made for triple the workload on us,” confessed Houghton,” but the end result was great because it served as a very unifying force at that particular event in the city.”

During the day of the recording, comprised of two two-and-a-half-hour concerts, one at 3 p.m. and one at 8 p.m., Houghton unexpectedly blacked-out backstage during the intermission of the second show. “I was out a good five minutes maybe,” Houghton recounted. “I was very scared. My wife, of course, was very nervous for me. But we made it. They came back and prayed for me.”

Besides the heat and his fatigue, Houghton said that his fainting spell might have been due to a migraine, something Houghton said he had never experienced before. And perhaps pushing too hard might have also contributed. As Houghton openly admitted, “I don’t have it in me to reserve anything. I am not good at pacing myself.”

Despite the setbacks, Houghton believes the project was a success. “For the record, we had the time of our lives!” he said, later telling me, “Everything from how it happened, to having Jonathan Butler on the record, to how the cover looks was a long-term dream that finally came to pass.”

The resulting 20-plus song set is very close to the original recording sessions, with little being cut for the final album. “For the most part, what you hear is what happened,” said Houghton.

Houghton is particularly proud to have the singing talent of 9-year-old daughter Mariah on the album. You can hear her on the reprise of Tommy Walker’s “He Knows My Name” (disc 1, track 9). Amazingly, with the help of Aaron Lindsay, Mariah’s part was recorded in the studio, not live in South Africa. The reason was mainly due to safety concerns. Houghton almost got misty-eyed when he told me, “Hearing your daughter on tape and then singing together with her, ah man!” There couldn’t have been a finer moment.

I was curious to find out what other moments on the album were Houghton’s favorites, specifically what, if any, were his favorite songs.

He laughed good-naturedly and first answered, “They are kind of like children – you can never really have a favorite.” But then he told me in all seriousness, “ ‘Not Forgotten,’ how it merged so well with the culture there and what it had to say, I think is one of my favorite songs to do [see disc 1, tracks 7-9], and ‘To Worship You I Live’ [disc 2, track 6] on the second CD, just sitting down at the piano and going for it is definitely my favorite thing to do.”

A worship leader with this kind of talent, visibility, and opportunity always needs prayer, so I asked Houghton how we could pray for him.

He answered, “I have met so many people with good intentions that just ended up so far off course because of the pressure of record companies. I am a man of deep convictions and no compromise. I guess the prayer is that that remains galvanized and we stay the course in our purpose.”

Amen to that, my brother. Amen.

Look for Israel Houghton as one of the headliners of next year’s Stellar Awards, January 21, 2006. And be sure to check out the Alive in South Africa DVD, slated to release the end of January 2006.

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