There were just nine of them. Somehow, they were expected to lift their voices above a vast orchestra of more than 1,000 instruments, and a chorus numbering more than 10,000.
Singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the original Fisk Jubilee Singers made themselves heard loud and clear. Performing at the World’s Peace Jubilee, a massive music festival organized in Boston in 1872, the group astonished the crowd, filling the coliseum with their voices, which soared, according to contemporary reports, above the thundering accompaniment.
“I wish I was there,” says Paul T. Kwami, who has been musical director of the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers since 1994. “The people must have been impressed to have documented it.”
In fact, the appearance in Boston was one of the first grand-scale events for what has become an American cultural institution. Formed in 1871 as a fund-raising venture for Fisk University, the historically black university in Nashville that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, the Fisk Jubilee Singers carry on the legacy of the great African-American spirituals. They return to Boston Sunday for a special event at Symphony Hall.
The event is hosted by Berklee College of Music. Voice professor Donna McElroy, a onetime member of the Fisk singers, says the effort to bring the group back to Boston — they haven’t performed here since the 1980s, according to Kwami — has been in the works at Berklee for more than two years.
She teaches a vocal ensemble called Jubilee Spirit at Berklee, introducing voice students of various backgrounds to the Fisk Jubilee Singers repertoire. It was the Fisk singers who first made such enduring spirituals as “Go Down, Moses,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “Wade in the Water” instantly familiar to white American audiences. The group’s 1909 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2002 and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame last year.
Besides honing their a cappella skills, McElroy says, the Spirit singers at Berklee gain “knowledge of the African diaspora cultural information, which we share a lot. It’s been an amazing experience for me.”
She considers it her duty to carry on the tradition of the Fisk singers, who provide a living link to the slave songs of the pre-Civil War era.
“The truth is, I pray for [recruiting] more African-American students,” she says. “I don’t blame my younger brothers and sisters for not being all that interested, but that’s not going to stop me from being a source of information for this knowledge.”
In her classroom, she connects the music of the Jubilee Singers to their significant role in civil-rights history by asking her students to complete an assignment.
“Even if they’re not American, I ask them to go back in their lives and describe a musical leader who taught you about your culture,” McElroy says. “That brings everyone to the same page.”
Kwami, who was born and raised in Ghana, followed in the footsteps of his father, who came to America to get an education at Lakeland College in Wisconsin. At Fisk, Kwami was a member of the Jubilee Singers; a few years later, after earning his master’s degree in music, he was hired as musical director.
Growing up, Kwami hadn’t heard of Black History Month (or its precursor, Negro History Week, created in 1926). Now, he’s busiest every February, trying to fulfill as many requests for appearances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers as possible.
“I keep wondering, why not just celebrate Black History Month throughout the year?” he says. “At the same time, I realize that people have to be brought into focus. Having February as Black History Month simply helps people to become much more aware.”
During his tenure, Kwami has worked to raise the organization’s profile by arranging concerts and recording sessions, often in collaboration with well-known artists. The Jubilee Singers have performed with Faith Hill and Hank Williams Jr., among others; in 2009 they were nominated for a Grammy for best gospel performance for “I Believe,” recorded with the blues guitarist Jonny Lang.
“I find out from time to time that even though the Fisk Jubilee Singers might be considered a national treasure, not everyone knows about the ensemble,” says Kwami. “Or if they know the name, they don’t know the type of music.”
The night before an interview, the Jubilee Singers had performed at the Ryman Auditorium, where the host admitted to Kwami he’d not been familiar with the ensemble. According to legend, it was Queen Victoria who may have given Nashville the nickname “Music City,” when she told the Jubilee Singers they must have come from a musical city.
They didn’t just come from one. By lifting their voices, they helped make it so.