Together, their 91 voices soared in Duke’s newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium, as the Durham School of the Arts Choir joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers for a sold-out concert before a diverse and receptive audience.
The Jubilee Singers, an internationally renowned student ensemble from historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., set the tone for Friday’s event with pitch-perfect renditions of Negro spirituals including “Ain’a That Good News” and “Here’s One” – a cappella songs of faith that rose out of captivity and cruelty, that sustained slaves and sometimes helped lead them to freedom.
“I describe these songs sometimes as God-given songs or songs that give wisdom and inspiration from God,” said Paul Kwami, musical director of the Fisk group, speaking briefly to the audience before an intermission.
The DSA Choir, 75 strong, soon joined the 16 Jubilee Singers on stage, with all-female and all-male ensembles performing before the groups came together as a mixed chorus. They engaged the crowd with their clear young voices, with playfulness when the songs warranted it, and with an earnest outpouring of emotion on selections like the well-known “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
By the last song on the program, “Ride the Chariot,” the high school singers from Durham and the award-winning, world-traveling Fisk group brought many in the crowd to their feet.
Arriving at that culminating moment required collective effort.
A native of Ghana, Kwami is a Fisk graduate and former Jubilee Singer himself. In addition to the concert, he spent four days in residency at DSA last week through a grant from South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization.
The grant launched a year-long Fisk Jubilee Singers Touring Program which began here with the DSA residency and concert. The program will take the group to Florida and Georgia this fall, winter, and in spring. Other funding partners are the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council.
At the other end of preparing for Friday’s concert, presented by Duke Performances, the DSA Choral Department devoted several weeks to getting students ready to work with Kwami in full rehearsals and smaller workshops.
Whether he was snapping his fingers, keeping time as the students sang, or making them laugh with anecdotes about the spirituals and tips for singing in general, Kwami focused both on the notes on the pages of the music, and on the finer points: inflection, dynamics, adding gestures and expression, and the context of the music.
“He provided further insight into what the songs we were singing meant,” said DSA sophomore Noah Coker. Noah, who surprised Kwami with the mature sound of his deep bass voice, sang a couple of solo lines in “Jubilee,” performed by the all-male ensemble of DSA and Fisk singers during the concert.
In turn, Kwami described his time with DSA students and instructors as unforgettable. “I have been here since Monday evening, and it has been a joy for me,” Kwami told the Baldwin Auditorium audience.
“These are your own children,” he added, urging the crowd to support the work occurring in DSA classrooms.
Between concert selections, as he did during rehearsals in DSA’s Weaver Auditorium, Kwami congratulated the DSA Choir and co-directors Amy Davis and Sean Grier for their “wonderful” work.
After one of last week’s rehearsals, Kwami reflected on what he’d just heard in the school auditorium: “Ride the Chariot,” sung by about 45 of the 75 DSA students who would perform Friday. (The students who missed that day of rehearsal were taking the PSAT.)
“Those are moments I’ll never forget,” said Kwami. “Having them know the music (spirituals) helps us (the Jubilee Singers) in presenting this music and presenting this culture,” he said.
“Their performance touched my spirit. To me, that is what music should do to people.”