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December 9, 2004

The true colours of Christmas

Toronto Eye Weekly (Canada):

When you consider that some folks reveal their hang-ups about race through their opinions of who should be performing what styles of music, it makes you question whether music is indeed a universal language. I've always felt that those who buy into that universal-language cliché are as naïve as those who vociferously declare that they "don't see colour" whenever the thorny issue of race enters a conversation.

Those who refute the incontrovertible fact that race matters should spend some time chatting with Dr. Walter Turnbull, the director of the world renowned Boys Choir of Harlem. In an interview a few years back, he told me that he's been accused of both "preaching reverse racism" and "trying to be white." Apparently, talking about the struggles of black people in your songs is somehow equated with being anti-white. Equally absurd is the charge that Turnbull's "trying to be white" because the Boys Choir's eclectic repertoire includes classical music.

Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, the artistic director of Toronto's Nathaniel Dett Chorale, can relate to the disparaging comments levelled at Turnbull. "Absolutely!" he says, "There are those who say that I'm a one-pony show and there are black folks who'll tell me I'm a black man with a white heart. What do you do? You soldier on and keep going forward." In the lily-white world of classical music, it's hard not to acknowledge a multicultural chamber group that's attempting to redress the lack of minority voices in classical music while raising the profile of black composers of choral music. It accomplishes this by deftly incorporating elements of jazz, gospel, blues spirituals and Caribbean music into its repertoire.

Formed six years back, the ensemble was named after R. Nathaniel Dett, a composer/pianist whose choral works were based on black spirituals and folk songs. He was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1882, and during his career he performed at prestigious concert halls and for two American presidents.

Given the void that the 21-strong Nathaniel Dett Chorale is filling, it's no surprise that its audience reflects this city more accurately than the crowds that show up at recitals by other classical outfits. "When I look out at the crowd, I go, 'This is my Toronto, this is my country.' I feel really honoured to have that mix of people coming to our shows," Blyden-Taylor says. "I formed the ensemble six years ago to really speak to these issues to humanity in general, but to people of African descent in particular. There are communities within what people perceive as 'the black community' that need to hear music that's part of their heritage.

"I have to be careful how I say this but some [other ensembles] might be envious of the audience we get and some might be happy with the audiences they get. And then you have others who talk about reaching across ethnic and age boundaries but they don't do the things necessary to do that. We try to cast our net as wide as possible." By that, Blyden-Taylor means that the chorale is open to performing music by composers who are not of African heritage but who have been profoundly influenced by Afrocentric music.

The Trinidadian-born conductor says that, before founding the chorale, he spent a few decades doing "what people call serious classical music." "But all of the music we do is serious, whether it's reggae or spirituals," he says. "That's when I began to realize there's a void in this country. There wasn't a vocal ensemble that was drawing attention to a wide range of Afrocentric choral music. The perception was that if you see a group of black singers they probably belong to a church and sing gospel."

Blyden-Taylor laughs when I suggest the Chorale's concert with Trinidad and Tobago's Signal Hill Alumni Choir won't be conjuring up images of a white Christmas. "Indigo is a wonderful colour," he says. "I didn't want to call it a black Christmas or an Afrocentric Christmas. When I was younger I felt I had to break people through. The older I get, the less I feel that way."

I can't speak for all classical music but choral music is well represented by black artists such as Moses Hogan, Joe Jennings (director Chanticleer), Brazeal Dennard and St Olaf Choir director Anton Armstrong. - Editor

Posted by acapnews at December 9, 2004 12:29 AM