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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

In Bright Mansions

  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
In Bright Mansions
Sounds like … there is no "sounds like" for the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They're literally the original when it comes to creating, preserving, and performing in the a capella African American Spiritual traditionAt a Glance … this retrospective is an excellent introduction to the Negro spiritual for the uninitiated, and a sweet, evocative reminder of the roots of gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll for the budding musicologist

In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: "By fateful chance the Negro folk-song – the rhythmic cry of the slave – stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience this side the seas … it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people."

By the time of Du Bois' writing, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had already achieved international renown as the first group to professionally sing the work songs, religious critiques, political and social commentaries, expressions of covert rebellion, and articulations of practical theology and spirituality that make up the Negro spiritual. These songs represent a unique point of religious and cultural fusion between the slaves and what DuBois referred to as their "foster land" in the New World. In addition to providing the roots of most modern forms of American music, they serve as a melodic text in American history, musicology, religious history, and race relations.

Because of this, it's impossible to understand the impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, but the newly compiled In Bright Mansions is a good place to start. In 1871, nine young singers left Nashville, Tennessee, to tour the United States, hoping to raise enough money to save Fisk University. Fisk, one of the first Southern schools dedicated to educating freed African Americans, was run by the American Missionary Association (a Christian organization devoted to abolitionist principles) and housed in an abandoned army barracks. Six years after the Civil War, Fisk was struggling to survive.

At first, the singers sang a program of European and classical popular songs before white Christian audiences. But eventually, their (white) choir director, George White, overheard the students singing the "cabin songs, plantation melodies, spirituals, and Jubilees" – folk songs – they and their parents had sung during slavery.

White began to include the spirituals as an encore to their program. But eventually he and Ella Sheppard, his student assistant, arranged the songs and decided to make them the mainstay of the singers' repertoire. White and Sheppard's groundbreaking decision dignified, preserved, and legitimized this form of musical expression during a time when public singing by blacks was limited to minstrel performances. The students, who had associated their parents' sacred music with a past to be forgotten, began to take pride in the rich, powerful beauty of the songs. The "Jubilee" part of the group's name comes from the year of emancipation described in Leviticus 25. They toured the United States, the British Isles, and Europe, singing for important figures of the day such as Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Spurgeon, and Queen Victoria. In addition to performing a rigorous concert schedule, these students – many former slaves themselves – bravely faced the social burden of showing the world that African Americans were educable. They were largely responsible for the survival of Fisk University (and the American Missionary Association) during those years. To this day, the Fisk Jubilee singers remain one of the most prestigious groups in American music.

This 18-track recording was made by Fisk students during the 2001-2002 academic year. Amazingly, they're somehow able to tap into the deep, lingering emotions the original singers brought to this art form more than a century ago. The timeworn lyrics, crisp diction, precise timing, and complex harmonies provide an emotive and musical connection between the aged and the modern, the folksy and the formal elements that mark this uniquely American music form.

These selections and arrangements bring a distinctive dignity to these a capella songs, which range from the slow, pensive, and reflective to the declamatory, upbeat, and joyous. Many freedmen hesitated to sing spirituals because of their connection to slavery – and the mutual trust and understanding that their performance for white audiences demands. Spirituals often reflect a hope for future justice and peace that some disparage as "pie-in-the-sky" theology designed to keep the slaves and their descendants content with their lot in life. But these renditions reflect a sense of longing, hope, and joy. The listener hears awareness of life's difficulties tempered by persistence and triumph rather than resignation. This is particularly true of director Paul Kwami's arrangement of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See," the sensitive "Were You There [When They Crucified My Lord]" and the crisp urgency of "Soon-Ah Will Be Done."

Other outstanding tracks include Jester Hairston's "Poor Man Lazarus" and "Hold On," Roland Carter's "Ride On Jesus" and "In Bright Mansions," and arrangements of "I'm Gonna Sing" and "I'm Got a Home In-A Dat Rock" by Moses Hogan (who recently passed away on February 11, 2003). The singers also bring a fresh approach to familiar songs such as "He's Got the Whole World" and "Wade in the Water."

Technically speaking, these 16 singers (4 for each part, SATB) achieve a blend par excellence under the direction of Kwami (himself a former Jubilee singer). At the same time, the careful listener can follow an individual voice throughout an entire song. Remarkably, producer Wesley Bulla chose to record the session with the singers placed together in one room – there are no headphones, no separate recording rooms, no rebalancing, no overdubs. Soloists aren't separated or mic'd differently from the rest of the ensemble. If you listen carefully, you can hear an occasional creak in the hardwood floor of the chapel-turned-recording-studio when a singer shifts his or her weight. This "aural closeness" provides further testament to the ability of this group. It creates an intimate effect and gives the listener a sense of sitting directly in front of them during a performance.

In Bright Mansions is an enhanced CD, so interested listeners can read historical materials, view recording session photos, and read the history of the group in the particularly rich liner notes as they listen to the album (which is packaged like a very old LP).

This album is, frankly, exceptional. It provides an excellent introduction to the Negro spiritual for the uninitiated and serves as a sweet, evocative reminder for those familiar with the musical and social roots of gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and rock and roll. It's a necessary addition to the library of any vocalist, student of American history, budding musicologist, or music lover.