Fisk Jubilee Singers honor King with music

Mary Mattingly

While many events planned at Grand Valley State University on Monday were dedicated to honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through speeches and demonstrations, the Fisk Jubilee Singers choir was invited to celebrate the civil rights leader with music.

“We should know these songs because they are a part of our history,” said Paul Kwami, director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “Slaves created these songs (while working on) plantations, but the original Fisk Jubilee Singers arranged them so that they can be performed onstage.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers is an a cappella ensemble made up of current Fisk University students, a college located in Nashville, Tenn. The ensemble performed four traditional African American spirituals under the direction of Paul Kwami.

The performance was met with a standing ovation.

“There are times when the audience plays a big part in our performances,” Kwami said after the concert. “Today we had a wonderful audience. Some audiences we have will shout, clap or move (while the ensemble performs) and the audience today (did) not…but I could tell from their facial expressions that they were enjoying the performance. It was a give-and-take experience with the audience and a beautiful environment to perform in.”

The group was invited to GVSU by the wife of H. James Williams, former dean of GVSU’s Seidman College of Business and professor of accounting, who was recently selected to be the next president of Fisk. After the ensemble’s arrival, it was introduced by Williams, who informed the audience of its history.

“We thank this community for allowing us to take him away,” said Kwami during the Singers’ performance. “I personally believe that he will make a great mark at Fisk.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers was founded in 1871 to raise funds for the then-five-year-old Fisk. George L. White, the treasurer and music director of the private liberal arts university, organized the original group of nine students. Its tour succeeded both in raising funds and introducing the rest of the world to the music of African American spirituals.

Today, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to travel and receive widespread acclaim. Under the direction of Kwami for the past 19 years, in 2007 the ensemble was invited by the U.S. Embassy to perform in Ghana and celebrate its 50th independence anniversary. Among its other awards include the 2008 National Medal of Arts.

At GVSU, the group performed a short program of four spirituals: “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Honor, Honor,” “Old Time Religion,” and “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” Kwami did not direct the group during performances, and ensemble members instead relied on each other for direction.

“This gives the students the opportunity to communicate with each other, and they are not distracted from the audience,” Kwami said. “Their focus is not on me (directing) but the music.”

The lack of a director during performances, which has been a practice of the group since before Kwami took over, harkens back to traditional African music, where there is never a director but a song leader.

“I typically select the songs,” Kwami said. “For this performance, I selected the (repertoire). I look for the atmosphere — we were actually not going to perform ‘Steal Away,’ but after that beautiful introduction (by Williams), I decided the group would open with that song.”

Ensemble members sang freely, swaying to the rhythm, closing their eyes and with some members gesturing during songs’ climatic moments. The spirituals featured aspects of traditional African music, with some call-and-response and rhythmic changes. The conclusion of the performance brought about applause and cheers from the audience.

“It was very inspiring, I felt a tear,” said audience member LaShawntelle Carson-Pops after the ensemble’s performance. “It inspired me to see other college students my age out there, making a change… it inspired me to go out into my community and make a change.”