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Spiritual experience: Jubilee Singers to share music, message

staff report • Mar 24, 2013 at 5:16 AM

Since 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have been on a mission to share the art form of Negro spirituals, making music for kings, queens and presidents as well as common folk around the globe. But equally important as the music is the message, says Dr. Paul T. Kwami, director of the a cappella group.

“The message is that there are beautiful things in the world and music is one of the sources of this beauty,” says Kwami, a native of Ghana who was a Fisk Jubilee singer himself in the 1980s. “As we study and perform music, we discover this beauty and share it with others. This may take the form of encouragement, expression of love, expression of our faith in God and the knowledge of our responsibility in sharing our gifts with other people for the good of the world. Music gives us more than just entertainment.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers will share this traditional music and its messages of hope and love at 7:30 p.m., March 26 in East Tennessee State University’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The 16-member ensemble will be joined by the David Crockett Madrigal Singers on four pieces, and under the direction of DCHS Choral Director Kelly Sams, the high school chorus will perform four pieces from the Madrigals’ repertoire.

To help prepare the 20 Madrigal Singers and teach them the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ special style of singing, Kwami has made three trips from Fisk University in Nashville to Crockett High School — one each in January, February and March.

The program for the March 26 performance will include pieces by well-known African-American arrangers such as Moses Hogan, Undine S. Moore, Jester Hairston, John W. Work III and William Dawson, as well as one of Kwami’s own arrangements. Spirituals will include “Soon-Ah Will Be Done,” “Ain A That Good News,” “Poor Man Laz-rus,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” and “The Battle of Jericho.”

Stressing the importance of such music in global and arts culture is also part of the focus of Kwami’s educational gift to these area students, and critical to that education is “understanding,” he says.

“One thing I am very particular about is having an understanding of the music that is being performed, that is, the message of the song that is being performed,” Kwami says. “Without an understanding, the performer cannot effectively share the message. When my students sing with understanding, it helps the emotion, and emotion is a very important part of music when it is performed and then it affects the audience …

“Once they understand what we are singing about, it speaks to them, and therefore they understand it and have fun with it. I know that some people may not agree with me, but I have come to realize that Negro spirituals today can be used to achieve some beautiful things and if you ask my students, they will tell you it is true. I know the benefit of understanding what the songs mean today.”

The benefits of the community collaboration, Sams says, will last much longer than the end of spring term.

“These students and I are participating in a musical opportunity that we will remember all our lives,” says Sams, Crockett’s choral director. “I still can’t believe we were chosen to participate in this project. I can already see improvement in [my students’] musicality in the short time Dr. Kwami has worked with them. They’re paying attention to the details and expressing the music with such emotion.

“We’re also being introduced to a genre of music in a way that I would never have been able to fully communicate to them without this opportunity. They’re experiencing the collaboration firsthand with such a remarkable musician … Having the opportunity to sing with such a prestigious group as the Fisk Jubilee Singers is an incredible opportunity for all of us.”

Enhancing student experiences is one of the missions integral to the way funding was established for the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, says its director, Anita DeAngelis.

“At a time when funding for education is diminishing somewhat — yet we know how important it is — it is wonderful to have someone in our community say, ‘It is important for me to see these kinds of activities in our schools,’” DeAngelis says. “It’s a good opportunity for our local students to come in direct contact with an artists’ organization and perform with them. It’s going to be great fun to see what happens.”

In addition to the message and music, the Jubilee Singers are also sharing a rich tradition, not only of spirituals but also of their own ensemble and historic school in Nashville. The Jubilee Singers broke racial barriers in the U.S. and abroad in the late 19th century, entertaining and enthralling European royalty and raising money to support their beloved school through difficult times. Since then, the ensemble has been honored numerous times as well as featured in “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory,” a PBS award-winning television documentary series released in 1999.

In 2002 the Library of Congress honored their 1909 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by adding it in the United States National Recording Registry. In July 2007, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went on a sacred journey to Ghana in celebration of the nation’s Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of its independence. In 2008, the singers received the 2008 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts, presented by President George W. Bush during a ceremony at the White House.

“We have never had anyone of this caliber come and work with us,” says alto Chelsea Shaw, a senior and student president of the DCHS Choral Department. “It’s going to open great windows for us. We’re going to learn a lot. Ms. Sams is a great teacher but there’s always room for improvement. I was so excited to hear we were actually singing with them in concert.”

Basses Jacob Anderson and James Allen say the visits from Kwami have been productive and enjoyable.

“I’m honored,” says Allen, a junior. “It’s awesome getting to work with him and I want to go into music education. It’s a different type of genre than I am used to singing. It will help me be a more well-rounded musician.”

Anderson, a senior, says he has already learned more than he expected in a couple visits from Kwami and intervening rehearsals with his own director. “I’m overjoyed about it because this is an opportunity that nobody else gets to have,” he says. “We’re very blessed. It’s teaching me a lot and it’s giving me an awesome experience.”

Tickets are $5 for all area students with a valid student ID, $15 for general admission and $10 for seniors 60 and over. Group discounts are available for general admission and senior tickets. Financial support for the concert and educational activities is provided by the Tennessee Arts Commission.

For more information on the Fisk Jubilee Singers, visit www.fiskjubileesingers.org. To find out more about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call (423) 439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/cas/arts. “Like” ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter at TheArtsAtETSU.

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