In a 70-minute musical mix under the towering trees of Potawatomi Park in South Bend, Black roots will meet the strings of a classical concert hall.
Twenty members of the South Bend Symphony Chorus will sing along with four local gospel singers. A string quintet from the South Bend Symphony Orchestra will play along with a gospel keyboardist, bassist and drummer. And two drummers will beat the beat while the choir sings and a local African troupe dances.
“Lifting Our Voices: A Celebration of African American Music and Dance” begins at 7:00 p.m. on August 13 as one of the free weekly outdoor performances on summer Saturdays at Potawatomi’s Chris Wilson Pavilion. The Community Foundation of St. Joseph County organized Saturday’s series.
“Lifting Our Voices” grew out of the orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Concert, 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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This winter, instead of playing a large music hall, Curtis split the event into three concerts at black churches in South Bend, where church choirs sang to woodwind quintet instrumentals. He wanted to bring music to its true home.
Laura Moran Walton stopped by the concert at Faith Alive Ministries and found, “It was amazing.”
So moved, she invited Curtis to recreate the “joyful, inspiring experience” at the Potawatomi Series, which she helps organize in her role as the Community Foundation’s vice president of communications and public affairs.
Curtis replied: Why don’t you add a dance?
“Black people do more than gospel,” 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 of the spirituals.
“It’s important to me to give context not only to the songs, but also to the place of African-Americans,” he says.
Growing up, he recalls, he was embarrassed to hear 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 tongues. wrong He explains that the songs came from slaves who, because of their native language, had a phonetic problem with the “th” sound. In addition, slaves learned English from slave masters, who were often illiterate, Curtis says.
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The songwriters were actually clever, often using coded language, he says, with lyrics to follow the “drinking gourd” as code for the Big Dipper to navigate the paths to freedom.
Dispelling misconceptions, he says, “People are realizing that the differences aren’t what they thought they were.”
The park setting, Walton says, makes the music and culture more accessible, as is the case with other parts of the series. It’s free. It’s ADA accessible. There are two bus lines. And there’s a nearby playground in case the kids get cranky.
Concerts draw 300 to 500 people in the audience 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 station WUBS-FM (89.7) will broadcast a portion 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 the beat: “Kuku,” a West African piece that celebrates harvesting food for the community, and “Yesu Azali Awa,” or “Jesus Is Here” “, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The orchestra’s string quartet will perform selections from two black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still, who is often called “the dean of African-American composers.”
Curtis will lead a choir singing the traditional spirituals “I’ve been ‘Buked,” (‘buked is short for rebuked) and “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” The late noted black composer Francis Hall Johnson provided choral arrangements for both songs.
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Music and youth pastor Terrell O’Neill, who led his Sweet Home Ministries choir at the winter concerts, helped select gospel songs and train the choir, and he will conduct one or two pieces on stage.
One of those songs, “Look and Live,” is the song his Sweet Home Choir performs for King’s holiday concerts. He says the piece by Detroit-area choir director Michael Fletcher is familiar to those who know classical hymns as well as those who know 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 Are the Center of My Joy,” a slow ballad that has become a traditional worship song. It was written by Richard Smallwood, whom O’Neill describes as “a staple in gospel music.”
Curtis also credits choir member CreAnne Mwale for conducting a piece and participating as a soloist.
Royal holiday concerts filled more than half the church seats. O’Neill saw a diverse audience, including people like SBSO music director Alistair Willis and other people from the community he doesn’t normally see in church. Similarly, he recalls, it was the first time his pastor had heard the orchestra.
There are plans to repeat the church concerts for King’s Day next year.
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Like these events, the Potawatomi Concert exposes all performers to different and varied ways of making music. Classical orchestras and choirs work from sheet music. In contrast, gospel choirs tend to learn songs by heart and memorize them.
“It was a learning experience for everyone involved,” says O’Neill.
At a concert
∎ WHO: Community Foundation of St. Joseph County’s Performing Arts Series presents “Lifting Our Voices: A Celebration of African American Music and Dance”
∎ When: 19:00, August 13
∎ Where: Chris Wilson Pavilion at Potawatomi Park, 500 S. Greenlawn Ave., South Bend
∎ Price: Free of charge
∎ Seats: Limited seats 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.