The Fisk Jubilee Singers are known world-wide for their flawless voices and performance of Negro Spirituals. Paul Kwami is the choir’s musical director and is on a five city, high school southern tour to personally help young voices hone and preserve the songs that have inspired people of all cultures.
Kwami’s first stop: The Durham School of the Arts.
Kwami is quite a maestro. He’s forceful enough to make his students want to work hard for him and gentle enough to pull out the best work, no matter how many times they have to repeat a verse or sustain a note.
“I came here because of you, so you are my inspiration and we will work together to make this happen. We’ll have fun, right! Great! So let’s sing again," said Kwami.
The Durham School of the Arts is known state-wide for its choral department. Three of its ensembles make up the group that is practicing now and will get the chance to sing with the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Jubilee Singers date back to 1871.
“So from beginning ready! One, two and three and," said Kwami.
The full choir began singing, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
“Very good, very good," said Kwami, interrupting the song early. "Sopranos, what are your first few words? Swing low. Alright, good."
The girls are a little nervous. And get even more nervous at the thought that Kwami is considering having them sing one at a time to make sure Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is perfect.
“You’ve all been on a playground right? What does a swing look like?" Kwami asked the Sopranos. "Alright. So, I want you to feel that swing low, swing low. You see that? Is she alright?”
There she goes. An alto faints.
Sean Grier is one of the choral directors at DSA. He’s seen this before.
“And typically it comes from them trying to actually do exactly what we want of them to do which is to stand up really tall and really straight, almost militant. And then they end up locking their knees, which prevents blood flow to their head and they sometimes take a tumble," said Grier. " But it’s always okay, we always tell them their safety is more important than the music.”
Kwami keeps on with the rehearsal – the big concert is coming up fast. Sopranos get to sit down and rest a little. Time for the tenors and basses to tackle "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
“Okay right there, tenors let’s work on that," Kwami said after hearing one verse. "Coming for to carry me home. Let’s sing that line."
Negro Spirituals are tightly linked to African American culture and to the slaves who originally sang them. It was a way of expressing their conditions along with the hope of being free one day.
Kwami stresses to the teenagers to let their minds, hearts and voices flow gently, quietly like a stream of water. And to hold the “m” in home. Time to add altos to the male voices.
“You know when you have a group of people singing one phrase, and one person drops out because that person has to take a breath you can always feel that loss," said Kwami. "So let’s all carry that phrase to the end. Alright. Again.”
"Coming for to carry me home," sang the students.
Rehearsal is over for the day. The students are pumped up and ready for their close-up tonight at Duke University when they sing with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Nigia Hunt, Una Healey and Andrew Davis are all 16 years old.
“I know I need to work on my facial expressions. Sometimes I’m just like dead in the face," said Hunt.
"Sometimes when I’m real emotional I don’t look like it externally, because I’m not an actress," Healey laughs with Hunt and Davis.
"I’ll just smile," said Davis, who wears braces, like Hunt. "I just need to smile more and act like I’m having fun to be there, but I am having fun to be there of course.”
Hunt and Healey begin singing their favorite song prepared for concert, "Poor man Lazarus, sick and disabled. Dip your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, 'cause I'm tormented in the flame!"
A win for Kwami; they’re humming a new tune. Next week, the maestro travels to Florida to work with another group of high school singers.