Nashville’s beloved choir, the world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers, continued a yearlong celebration of its storied history at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last Thursday.
Over the last 150 years, the legacy of the Negro spiritual in America has been lifted up to the heavens and to the ears of unfamiliar audiences by the angelic voices of generations of Fisk University’s Fisk Jubilee Singers.
“I am very, very grateful to every one of you who is here this evening. This celebration is a very special one,” choir director of 27 years Dr. Paul Kwami told the audience. “We are celebrating our 150th anniversary, but it is the city of Nashville that is celebrating and honoring the Fisk Jubilee Singers tonight.”
From the first pitch-perfect and impossibly pure note of timeless classical and gospel harmonies, both simple and stunningly complex, the enduring soul of the group was felt throughout the room through its latest award-winning incarnation.
As they did so, Kwami made sure to pass on their stories.
“One hundred fifty years ago, George White, founder and first director of the ensemble, chose to travel with a group of nine young African American students from Fisk University,” said Kwami. “Their mission was to travel around the world and raise funds for an ailing institution.”
Those students were children of slaves, children of free men and women, those who labored as jewelers, as laundresses, in hotels. They were those who had no one, escaping tragedy and strife, while others were the beneficiaries of immeasurable parental love that helped them get to a university during the turbulent time of emancipation.
From their collective stories, and from their institution’s need, rose a calling that would lay the foundation for numerous musicians to come, Black and white alike.
“As a result of their toils, they introduced a very special genre of music to the whole world,” Kwami said. “This music is not just any ordinary kind of music. It’s music that has its roots in West African music. It is music that their parents, their grandparents sang while they were on the plantations during the time of slavery.”
That calling evolved in its magnitude and reach as the group did, over their 150 years in pursuing it.
“These Fisk Jubilee singers chose to transform these songs, songs that they originally did not want to sing in public because the songs were very sacred to them,” Kwami said. “But they ended up sharing the music with the whole world and we continue to sing these songs.”
Songs like “Steal Away For Jesus,” “Rise, Shine, For The Light Is A Comin’,” “The Gospel Train” and “Walk Together Children” told the abstract emotion-filled stories of their struggles, their hopes and their perseverance better than simple words could ever express.
Nine students of the ensemble began the program on stage. Representing those original nine students, they spoke of their individual journeys between songs.
As they sang, echoes emanated of those trailblazers, those that first brought the form to the Western world’s attention in the immediate aftermath of slavery and those same singers believed to have led Queen Victoria of England to be the first to utter Nashville “must be the Music City” after their performance in England in the 1870s.
It was a fitting capstone for the Classical and the Gospel Music Hall of Famers’ extended anniversary celebration, as the Ryman was where the group recorded its most recent claim to fame. In 2021, they were awarded Best Gospel Roots Album at the Grammy Awards for their effort “Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album.”
Before its end, the concert also featured special guests including Dr. Bobby Jones, Jason Eskridge, Ruby Amanfu, Natalie Hemby, Brassville, Rissi Palmer, Kyla Jade, Tommy Sims, Starlito and Curt Chambers.
To see a Main Street Media interview with Kwami go to http://tinyurl.com/fiskgrammy.