Arts Listings

The Friends of Negro Spiritual Sing Out in Oakland

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 06:58:00 PM

It’s the “Collaboration of the Year.” The Oakland East Bay Community Chorus, directed by Bill Bell, will perform spirituals, and the Friends of Negro Spirituals will present the African American Museum and Library of Oakland with In Our Own Words, their 10-DVD compilation of oral histories concerning the learning of and preservation for spirituals, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. this Saturday at the museum. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion with some of the “Heritage Keepers” who were recorded for the DVD set. 

“Three organizations that work to preserve the old Negro Spirituals in the Bay Area, coming together for the first time,” said Sam Edwards, co-founder of Friends of Negro Spirituals. “That’s one of the significant features of this collaboration. Friends of Negro Spirituals, the African American Museum and Library—and the Oakland East Bay Community Chorus: of those groups around doing spirituals, the only one left standing that’s dedicated to doing them in more formal style, since the Lucy Kinchen Chorale hasn’t been performing in a while.” 

Bill Bell, noted jazz pianist and educator (formerly of UC Berkeley, Stanford and Alameda College), described the chorus’s program: “It will be a little historical, beginning with ‘God’s Going to Set This World on Fire,’ arranged by Moses Hogan, an amazing young singer who passed away a few years ago, who would travel with his choir from New Orleans. Then ‘Walk in Jerusalem’ and Moses Hogan’s arrangement of ‘Hear My Prayer.’ Then we’ll talk about the importance of the pentatonic scale for spirituals and the West African music which predates them—and for contemporary music as well—with examples. We’ll close out the program with a small tribute to Obama with what is known as the Black National Anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and B. B. and C. C. Winans’ tribute to Obama, ‘We Need One Another.’” 

The chorus “had our beginnings at Downs Methodist Church [in North Oakland]; we grew out of that experience, a combined chorus of the different choruses in the church,” Bell recollected. “In 1967, we were asked to participate in Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music Concert in what was then still Oakland Auditorium [now Calvin Simmons Memorial Auditorium]. We worked with Max Roach in a performance of his. But we stayed together doing Christmas concerts, mainly, and at Easter—the major Christian holidays.  

“Come 2000,” Bell recalled, “there was a big spirituals festival at Cal Berkeley. We thought we’d be going over the world but had no sponsorship. Since then, we broke out from the Church, got our 501(c)(3) as a nonprofit. We have 45 to 50 members, multicultural, and still perform the two holidays and a number of times, like this, during Black History Month. Our whole purpose, our mission, is to preserve African American Spirituals, performing them at a very high level.” 

Sam Edwards and Lyvonne Chrisman founded Friends of Negro Spirituals in Oakland in 1998, in great part inspired by Moses Hogan’s rendition of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Chrisman will moderate the panel, discussing “how people learn about spirituals and what’s being done to preserve them,” which will include Edwards, Bell and several of the Heritage Keepers who were recorded on the DVD set being presented to AAMLO. 

Last year, In Our Own Words was first celebrated at Mills College, an event marked by an impressive turnout—and an Oral History Association Award, presented October 16 in Pittsburgh. “Nancy MacKay of Mills and I went back together,” said Chrisman, “and the president of the association said, ‘We want to sing!’ It was a surprise. I’m a historian, not a singer. But I got them singing ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ which repeats. Afterwards, they were all happy, and said, ‘We’ve never had anything like this!’” 

African American Museum and Library of Oakland. 659-14th St. in Downtown Oakland. Free with RSVP to 637-0200.