African roots music joins the South Bend Symphony Choir in an outdoor concert
In a 70-minute musical mash-up under the towering trees of South Bend’s Potawatomi Park, black roots will meet the strings of a classical concert hall.
Twenty members of the South Bend Symphonic Choir will sing along with four local gospel soloists. A string quintet from the South Bend Symphony Orchestra will play alongside a gospel keyboardist, bassist and drummer. And two drummers will beat a rhythm while the choir sings and a local African troupe dances.
“Lifting Our Voices: A Celebration of African American Music and Dance” begins at 7 p.m. on August 13 as one of the free weekly outdoor performances on summer Saturdays at the Chris Wilson Pavilion in Potawatomi. The St. Joseph County Community Foundation hosts the Saturday series.
“Lifting Our Voices” stems from the orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday concert that Marvin Curtis, Dean Emeritus of IU South Bend’s Raclin School of the Arts, had co-founded and directed since 2010.
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This winter, instead of performing in a large music hall, Curtis split the event into three concerts at black churches in South Bend where church choirs sang along to the instrumentals of a wind quintet. He wanted to bring the music to his real home.
Laura Moran Walton attended the concert at Faith Alive Ministries and found, “It was just amazing.”
So moved, she invited Curtis to replicate the “joyful and uplifting experience” of the Potawatomi series that she helps curate in her role as vice president of communications and public relations for the Community Foundation.
Curtis replied: Why not add dancing?
“Black people do more than gospels,” he explains. “I wanted people to understand how the music got there and how the dance got there.”
stories in songs
In between conducting most of the music, Curtis will also narrate, adding context and African history to the language in the spirituals.
“It’s important to me to give context not just to the songs, but to the place of African Americans,” he says.
When he was growing up, he recalls, he was ashamed of hearing old songs with words like “dese” and “dose” rather than “those” and “those.” He didn’t talk like that. White culture told him it was because black people had big lips and big tongues. Bad. He explains that the songs came from slaves who, because of their mother tongue, had a phonetic problem with the “th” sound. Additionally, slaves learned English from slave masters who were often illiterate themselves, Curtis says.
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The songwriters were, in fact, smart, often using coded language, he says, with lyrics about following a “drinking gourd” as code for the Big Dipper to navigate the roads of freedom.
By breaking down the misconceptions, he says, “people understand that the differences are not what they thought they were.”
The park setting, Walton says, makes the music and culture more accessible, as it does with other parts of the series. It’s free. It is ADA accessible. It is on two bus lines. And there’s a playground nearby in case the kids get restless.
Concerts draw 300 to 500 audience members for many performances and up to nearly 1,300 for the full South Bend Symphony Orchestra concert.
And to make the concert even more accessible, radio WUBS-FM (89.7) will broadcast part of “Lifting Our Voices” live from the park.
Music to move you
Kelly Burgét and her local African dance troupe, UZIMA, will dance to two songs as two drummers beat to the beat: “Kuku,” a West African piece that celebrates the harvesting of food for the community, and “Yesu Azali Awa,” or “Jesus is Here”, which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The orchestra’s string quartet will make selections from two black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still, often called the “dean of African-American composers.”
Curtis will lead the choir singing the traditional spirituals “I’ve been ‘Buked” (‘buked is short for rebuked) and “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” The late and famous black composer Francis Hall Johnson had made choral arrangements for both songs.
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Music and youth pastor Turrell O’Neal, who led his Sweet Home Ministries choir at winter concerts, helped select gospel songs and form the choir, and he will conduct a play or two on the scene.
One of those songs, “Look and Live,” is the one his Sweet Home choir had performed for King’s holiday concerts. He says the piece by Detroit-area choir director Michael Fletcher is known to both those familiar with classical hymns and those familiar with gospel music.
“I wanted to do something recognizable,” he says. “It’s a catchy and joyful song. You can clap your hands, tap your feet, nod your head.
Another piece is “Jesus, you are the center of my joy”, a slow ballad that has become a traditional worship song. It is written by Richard Smallwood, whom O’Neal describes as a “staple of gospel music”.
Curtis also thanks CreAnne Mwale, a member of the choir, for conducting a piece and for appearing as a soloist.
The King’s holiday concerts filled more than half the seats in the church. O’Neal has seen various audiences, including people such as SBSO Music Director Alastair Willis and others from the community he doesn’t normally see at church. Likewise, he recalls, it was the first time his pastor had heard the orchestra.
It is planned to repeat the church concerts for the King’s holiday next year.
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Like these events, the Potawatomi concert exposes all performers to diverse and different ways of making music. Classical orchestras and choirs work from scores. In contrast, gospel choirs tend to learn songs orally and memorize them.
“It was a learning experience for everyone involved,” says O’Neil.
∎ Who: St. Joseph’s County Community Foundation Performing Arts Series Presents “Raise Our Voices: A Celebration of African-American Music and Dance”
∎ When: 7 p.m. August 13
∎ Where: Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potawatomi Park, 500 S. Greenlawn Ave., South Bend
∎ Cost: Free
∎ Seats: Limited places near the stage. Bring lawn chairs or blankets.
∎ Broadcast: A portion of the performance will be broadcast live on radio station WUBS-FM (89.7).
∎ For more information: Call 574-232-0041 or visit cfsjc.org.