The Story of Music: A Civil Rights Movement-Inspired Community Sing

By Cassandra Sottile
Elm Staff Writer

The week of April 2 marked 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on a balcony outside his Memphis hotel room on April 4, 1968.

To commemorate his memory, Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, former member of  Sweet Honey in the Rock, led a workshop on African music on Tuesday, April 3. The workshop was sponsored by Kent County Arts Council, Black Student Union, and the Department of Music Concert Series as a part of the four Days of Commemoration in Chestertown for Dr. King, who would have been 89 years old.

“We are celebrating and participating in the spirit of Dr. King and celebrating him as he continues to be a living presence throughout the world,” said Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Dr. Barnwell led the community in lessons about African music, including instrumentation, call and response, and oral versus visual culture.

“There is no conductor, it is about listening to everyone else to figure out how to work well together,” she said.

Dr. Barnwell’s workshop was interactive. She taught the community how to embrace the body of song.

“Music is not ever without a purpose. The voice is the through-line,” Dr. Barnwell said.

She divided the audience into voice sections, and taught hymns and phrases in a round. Community participants also learned how to take over a song.

Senior Jordana Qi, a former member of WC’s Afro-Cuban ensemble, said, “I have found that participation is one of the best ways to experience something and learn about it. I was a little nervous when she asked for volunteers and didn’t really know what to expect, but I liked learning about how the different rhythms fit together and interacted.”

Dr. Barnwell led a discussion on understanding the definition of spirituals and the references that were made in them.

“Music exists because something happened, whether it’s documenting, telling a story, or celebrating,” she said.

She defined spirituals as work songs that were about God and a form of communication. African-Americans documented every area of life and didn’t separate life without God.

“Everything was put into context that people didn’t question doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it,” Dr. Barnwell said.

By the end of the workshop, everyone was singing with Dr. Barnwell.

“I was familiar with Sweet Honey in the Rock before Dr. Barnwell’s presentation from my former internship with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington, D.C. I was excited to meet someone who was a part of this amazing and historically significant group,” Qi said.

According to senior William Sade, a Starr Center intern, the start of the workshop was a little quiet, but by the end of the workshop everyone was singing and participating.

“I wanted to have a learning experience I would never forget. Hearing Dr. Barnwell’s introduction made me appreciate the breadth and depth of her experiences with Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her other experiences like becoming an ASL interpreter,” Qi said.

After the two-hour workshop closed, a banquet followed in Hynson Lounge.

“It was wonderful to see both WC students and the Chestertown community come together in song. I can’t remember the last time I was in a room with that many people singing,” Qi said.

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