Fisk Jubilee Singers aim to stir souls

Noted college group to perform Feb. 28

February 21, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Fisk University Jubilee Singers were born in pain and surmounted early indignities to become a famous a cappella group, introducing audiences around the world to spiritual music and incorporating old slave songs into their performances.

In an effort to add spiritual uplift to Columbia, the group has been invited to perform at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts on Feb. 28.

The welcome wasn't always so positive.

The group was organized in 1871 in an effort to save Fisk, a free school for blacks, from bankruptcy. But during the group's worldwide fund-raising tour that began that year, the nine singers, including former slaves, endured indignities as they performed in white America, facing people who didn't support their cause.

"They were jeered, taunted and spit on," said Donna L. Rice, a Fisk University graduate who lives in Columbia. "They were the civil rights people of yesteryear. They had to brave all this humiliation and harm just to sing."

The group raised thousands of dollars touring, helping the Nashville, Tenn., university, founded in 1866, get out of debt and construct the school's first permanent building, Jubilee Hall.

Rice, chairwoman for the Columbia performance, is helping bring the group to Howard County during what she called a timely month - Black History Month - with the hope that the visit will also help people deal with "the winter blahs." The group last performed in Columbia in 1993.

"I think it will help our community because it's a positive influx of this kind of music, which is very, very uplifting," she said. "And it cuts across all kinds of religious denominations ... . It's just plain good music that makes you feel good."

Rice said the distinctive musical style, which she labeled "soul stirring" spiritual music, often brings audiences to tears.

"It's moving, it kind of transports you to another place - it has that kind of quality about it," Rice said. "It reaches your innermost soul."

Paul T. Kwami, the group's director, said at least 50 students usually try out for the group, which consists of 16 full-time students. He said the students view being a Jubilee Singer as a great honor, and they don't take the responsibility lightly. "They see themselves stepping into the shoes of the original group who did so much not just for Fisk but for the American culture," he said. "We are singing what they introduced to the world in the 1800s."

Among the original group's fans was Queen Victoria of England. When the group traveled to Europe in 1873, they sang for the queen, who was so moved by the performance that she commissioned a portrait of the original singers as a gift to the university, Kwami said. The ceiling-to-floor portrait hangs in Jubilee Hall.

Rice was a member of the university's choir but never made it to the prestigious Jubilee Singers.

"They have to have perfect pitch," she said. "In my estimation, it is the highest or purist form of singing because you have to have not just a good voice, but you have to be able to harmonize and sing without any accompaniment of any kind."

Kwami said the group tours as often as possible, usually about twice a month. He said he hopes the singers communicate the important impact the music had on American culture and pass that musical style to younger generations.

"We are singing music that has been passed down from our own ancestors. Those are songs that slaves sang on the plantation," Kwami said.

Rice said she will invite high school students from Columbia schools to a free performance, to provide inspiration and exposure to diversity in the arts and music.

"Bringing this type of event and injecting something new and different in our very diverse community allows us another opportunity to expose not just adults, but also young people to the wonders of the arts world," she said.

The Fisk University Jubilee Singers will perform at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts at Wilde Lake High School at 8 p.m. Feb. 28. Tickets cost $30 for orchestra seats, $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Information or tickets: 1-877-576-2424.

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