5:13pm

Thu November 7, 2013
Code Switch

Striking Harmonies With The Jubilee Singers' Past And Present

Originally published on Thu November 7, 2013 5:51 pm

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are known worldwide for their flawless voices and stellar performances of Negro spirituals. They're from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., but they travel around the world to perform their music. Negro spirituals were originally sung by slaves and remain tightly linked to African-American culture. Paul Kwami, the choir's musical director, said singing these spirituals was a way for slaves to lament their servitude, along with the hope of being free one day.

He hopes to use these songs to connect the past and present.

"It's part of [the students'] culture and if we don't expose them to this aspect of the culture, it will get lost," Kwami said.

Now he is on a five-city tour to help preserve these songs that have inspired so many people and help younger singers learn how to sing them with emotion. Kwami will be leading week-long "residencies" in southern communities in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina as part of a program sponsored by South Arts, a regional arts nonprofit. His first stop was at the Durham School of the Arts, which is known across North Carolina for its strong choral department.

Kwami is a perfectionist. He helps the group sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot": "I came here because of you, so you are my inspiration, and we will work together to make this happen. We'll have fun, right! Great! So let's sing again."

The girls are a little nervous. They get even more nervous knowing that Kwami might have them sing one at a time to make sure "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is performed just right. Sopranos are resting while the director turns to the tenors and basses.

Kwami stresses to the teenagers to let their minds, hearts and voices flow gently, quietly like a stream of water. And to hold the "m" in home.

Sean Grier is one of the choral directors at the Durham School of the Arts. He spent weeks preparing students for Kwami, which he says included teaching them the history behind this unique art form.

"The art of the Negro Spiritual is new for many of them. But we knew that with Dr. Kwami it would still take a lot of the same qualities and discipline that we use when singing Mozart and Bach," Grier said.

After the rehearsal, the students hum the spiritual as they walk to their next class.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Fisk Jubilee Singers wow audiences with their performances of Negro Spirituals. The choir's musical director, Paul Kwami, is now on a five-city tour, helping younger singers hone and preserve those songs that have inspired so many.

North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge was at Kwami's first stop.

LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: Paul Kwami is a perfectionist.

PAUL KWAMI: I came here because of you, so you are my inspiration, and we'll work together to make this happen. We'll have fun, right? Great. All right. So let's sing again.

INGE: Kwami is visiting the Durham School of the Arts, known across North Carolina for its choral department. So the school jumped at the chance to train under Kwami and sing in a Duke Performances concert with the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

KWAMI: So from beginning, ready. One, two and three and...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot.

KWAMI: Very good, very good. Sopranos...

INGE: The girls are a little nervous and get even more nervous knowing that Kwami might have them sing one at a time to make sure "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is performed just right.

KWAMI: You've all been on the playgrounds, right? What does a swing look like? So I want you to feel that swing low. You see that?

INGE: Kwami is able to spend time with these students thanks to a new program sponsored by South Arts. It allows him to hold week-long residencies in five Southern communities in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Sweet low, chariot, coming for to carry me...

KWAMI: OK. Right there, tenors, let's work on that.

(Singing) Coming for to carry me home.

Let's sing that line. Ready, go.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Coming for to...

INGE: Negro Spirituals are tightly linked to African-American culture and to the slaves who originally sang them. Kwami says it was a way to express their conditions, along with the hope of being free one day.

KWAMI: It's part of their culture and if we don't expose them to this aspect of the culture, it will get lost.

INGE: Kwami stresses to the teenagers to let their minds, hearts and voices flow gently, quietly like a stream of water. And to hold the M in home. Time to add altos to the male voices.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Coming for to carry me home.

KWAMI: Wonderful. Will you remember all this?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

INGE: Sean Grier is one of the choral directors at the Durham School of the Arts. He spent weeks preparing students for Kwami, which he says included the history behind this unique art form.

SEAN GRIER: The art of the Negro Spiritual is new for many of them. But we knew that with Dr. Kwami it would still take a lot of the same qualities and discipline that we use when we're singing Mozart and Bach.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Poor man Lazarus, sick and disabled, dip your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue...

INGE: Rehearsal is over. And the Durham School of the Arts students hum to their next class. And it's not hip-hop. For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Durham, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.