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February 11, 2006

Singers legacy goes back to slavery times

Flint Journal (MI):

It's not enough to sing slave songs. The 16 college students who make up the Fisk Jubilee Singers have to feel what they're singing. "They have to understand what they are singing about. They have to enjoy what they are singing about. It is only then that their messages (can) go forth and be received by the audience," says Paul T. Kwami, the Tennessee-based group's African-born artistic director. "Without (that), they would be faking the music. We work with those types of things in rehearsals. We do a lot of talking."

Kwami describes their repertoire of slave songs, better known as Negro spirituals, as "a body of music that was created by the slaves when they were on the plantations ... (it's) music through which the slaves expressed their emotions, their faith, their joys, but they also used this music to communicate with each other." Fisk University students who aspire to join the storied group must sing a spiritual in their auditions. Once accepted, members are immersed in the history of the music. "In our own rehearsals sometimes we stop singing and discuss the text of the music," Kwami says.

Fisk University was founded in Nashville after the Civil War by white Northern missionaries in 1866 as the Fisk Free Colored School, one of several schools established to satisfy freed slaves' thirst for knowledge. It became Fisk University a year later. The Jubilee Singers were organized by choirmaster George Leonard White in 1871. Its nine students were charged with preserving the music they helped devise as slaves - and becoming ambassadors and fundraisers for the school.

The group's first U.S. tour 135 years ago was financed from the school's meager savings, but it quickly was embraced by American and European audiences. The ensemble performed for the likes of President Ulysses S. Grant, author Mark Twain and Britain's Queen Victoria. Those first tours helped fund the school's Jubilee Hall, now a national historic landmark. Kwami first became aware of the university as a music teacher in his native Ghana. He enrolled at Fisk in 1983 and joined the group that year. He graduated two years later, then earned his master's degree in music from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo ("My very first day I stepped on campus, I fell in love with the beauty of the place," he recalls.)

He returned to the Fisk singers as an assistant director in 1993, becoming its full-time director later that year. As a living link between the slaves' native continent and the country where they were forced to live, the director has moved the repertoire beyond the European-style arrangements that once dominated to include, Kwami says, "flavors of African-American music, such as very strong rhythms, and one can get a feel for gospel music in some of (the) arrangements." He's also raised the group's profile. In recent years, it has been the subject of a PBS documentary, "Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory," was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and earned a Grammy nomination for 2004's "In Bright Mansions" CD.

The challenge now, Kwami says, is to stay true to the mission while adapting to the times. "The Negro spiritual is a body of music that carries a message of faith and hope and encouragement to people," he says. "We've been in situations, in concerts where people would write to me after the concert and tell us how they were touched by the music and felt blessed by the music and how much it ministered to them. "We can look at the historical aspect, but the question is how much can you use the music today," asks Kwami, whose group will work with a group of local students in an afternoon workshop Saturday.

One opportunity came last year when legendary rocker Neil Young tapped the group to perform some Canadian concerts with him. The group also joined him in last summer's Live 8 concerts to fight hunger and poverty in Africa.

"Even though the music we performed is not what I would classify as Jubilee Singers music, I consider it as an opportunity for us to explore, and, of course, take advantage of the opportunity to work with other people," Kwami says. "Even in doing that, I am very careful to make sure that my students and myself still understand we have a responsibility of performing Negro spirituals, maintaining the Negro spirituals for which the Jubilee Singers are known." He pauses, then adds: "I'm hoping one day to get him (Young) also to sing our music."

Posted by acapnews at February 11, 2006 12:06 AM