Black roots meet the strings of a classical concert hall in a 70-minute musical mashup beneath the towering trees of South Bend’s Potawatomi Park.
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 along with a gospel keyboardist, bassist and drummer. And two drummers will play a beat while the choir sings and a local African troupe dances.
Raising Our Voices: A Celebration of African-American Music and Dance begins August 13 at 7:00 p.m. as one of the free weekly summer Saturday outdoor performances at Potawatomi’s Chris Wilson Pavilion. The St. Joseph County Community Foundation arranges the Saturday series.
“Lifting Our Voices” springs from the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday concert by the orchestra, which Marvin Curtis, Dean Emeritus of IU South Bend’s Raclin School of the Arts, co-founded and has directed since 2010.
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Rather than performing in a large music hall, Curtis split the event into three concerts this winter at Black Churches in South Bend, where church choirs sang to instrumentals by a woodwind quintet. He wanted to bring the music to its proper home.
Laura Moran Walton stopped by Faith Alive Ministries for the concert and said, “It was just amazing.”
So moved, she invited Curtis to repeat the “joyful, uplifting experience” in the Potawatomi series, which she is co-organizing in her role as Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for the Community Foundation.
Curtis replied, why not add dance?
“Black people do more than just gospels,” he explains. “I wanted people to understand how the music got there and how the dance got there.”
stories in the songs
As well as conducting most of the music, Curtis will also narrate and add language to the spirituals context and African history.
“It’s important to me not only to give context to the songs, but also to give context to the role played by African Americans,” he says.
Growing up, he recalls being embarrassed to hear old songs with words like “dese” and “dose” instead of “these” and “those.” He didn’t speak like that. White culture told him it was because black people had big lips and tongues. Not correct. He explains that songs were written by slaves who, because of their mother tongue, had a phonetic problem with the “th” sound. Also, slaves learned English from slave masters, who were often illiterate themselves, says Curtis.
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The songwriters were indeed clever, often using scrambled language, he says, with lyrics about tracking a “drinking gourd” as the code for the Big Dipper to navigate the path to freedom.
Clearing up fallacies, he says, “People understand that the differences aren’t what they thought.”
The park setting, Walton says, makes the music and culture more accessible, as is the case in other parts of the series. It’s free. It is ADA accessible. It is on two bus routes. And it has a playground nearby in case kids get restless.
The concerts draw between 300 and 500 listeners for many performances, and up to nearly 1,300 for concerts by the entire South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
And to make the concert even more accessible, radio station WUBS-FM (89.7) will broadcast a portion of “Lifting Our Voices” live from the park.
Music that moves you
Kelly Burgét and her local African dance group UZIMA will dance to two songs while two drummers pound in time: “Kuku,” a West African tune celebrating the harvest of food for the community, and “Yesu Azali Awa,” or “Jesus is Here.” ‘, which hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The orchestra’s string quartet plays selections by two black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still, often referred to as the “dean of African American composers”.
Curtis will conduct the choir and sing the traditional spirituals “I’ve Been Buked” and “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” The late, well-known 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 the winter concerts, has helped select gospel songs and coach the choir, and he will conduct a tune or two on stage.
One of those songs, “Look and Live,” was one his Sweet Home choir performed for the King Christmas concerts. He says the piece, written by Detroit-area choral director Michael Fletcher, is familiar to both those who are familiar with classical hymns and those who are familiar with gospel music.
“I wanted to do something recognizable,” he says. “It’s an upbeat, upbeat song. You can clap your hands, tap your feet, nod your head.”
Another track is “Jesus, You’re the Center of My Joy,” a slow ballad that has become a traditional worship song. It was written by Richard Smallwood, whom O’Neal describes as a “gospel music staple.”
Curtis also credits chorus member CreAnne Mwale with conducting a piece and helping out as a soloist.
The King Christmas concerts filled more than half of the church seats. O’Neal saw a diverse audience, including the likes of SBSO music director Alastair Willis and other people from the community he doesn’t typically see at church. Also, he recalls, it was the first time his pastor had heard the orchestra.
It is planned to repeat the church concerts for the royal holidays next year.
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As with these events, the Potawatomi concert exposes all performers to diverse and diverse styles of music making. Classical orchestras and choirs work from sheet music. In contrast, gospel choirs tend to learn songs orally and memorize them.
“It was a learning experience for everyone involved,” says O’Neil.
∎ Who: Community Foundation of St. Joseph County’s Performing Arts Series Presents “Lifting Our Voices: A Celebration of African American Music and Dance”
∎ When: 7 p.m. Aug. 13
∎ Where: Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potawatomi Park, 500 S. Greenlawn Ave., South Bend
∎ Costs: Free
∎ Seats: Limited seating near the stage. Bring beach chairs or blankets.
∎ Transmission: Part of the performance will be broadcast live on radio station WUBS-FM (89.7).
∎ For more informations: Call 574-232-0041 or visit cfsjc.org.