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Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston

Jubilee Singer 2016The Fisk Jubilee Singers, with director Dr. Paul Kwami (seated center), in Nashville in 2015.

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.


  1. Fisk University to Unveil New Home for Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  2. 87th Annual Spring Arts Festival
  3. NAIA All American Honorable Mention: Stevonna Scott
  4. Wynell Edwards Retires After 47 Years of Service to Fisk
  5. Fisk Jubilee Singers® concert adds special guests
  6. Fisk University to Host Sesquicentennial Scholarship Gala at Music City Center
  7. Fisk University Establishes Research Center with $5m Grant From National Science Foundation
  8. Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer
  9. Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
  10. Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston
  11. Fisk Forum
  12. Dearly Departed
  13. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  14. Alpha Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Celebrates 90th Birthday with Fisk Beautification Project
  15. Fisk University Celebrates its Sesquicentennial with Various Events Year-Round
  16. Jazz on The Move: The Music and Life of Nat King Cole
  17. Frist Center for the Visual Arts Celebrates WFSK 88.1 with Free Admissions for Faculty, Staff and Alumni
  18. WFSK 88.1 Hits Milestone with Educational Programming
  19. Renowned Vocalist Presents Program of African American Spirituals
  20. Monique Odom ’95 Named Deputy Director of Metro Nashville Parks
  21. Around Campus
  22. Kim Whitley Wins Hollywood Game Night
  23. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  24. Jazzy 88 WFSK - Upcoming Events
  25. Dearly Departed
  26. Jacquelyn Favours '13 Joins Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
  27. Fisk Professors Win $333,249 Research Award
  28. Elizabeth Taylor ’02 Joins The Tennessee State Board of Education
  29. Kimberly Goods ’93 Named Teacher Of The Year
  30. Fisk Sunday
  31. Fisk Coverage Of Founders’ Day
  32. Women Of Perfection Participate In Annual MLK Day Of Service
  33. Kansas City Public Schools Names Dr. Mark Bedell ’97 New Superintendent
  34. Berklee College of Music Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  35. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  36. Dearly Departed
  37. Sesquicentennial Exhibits – John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library
  38. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  39. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  40. Religious Leaders for Fisk Prayer Brunch
  41. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  42. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  43. University News - October 30, 2015
  44. University News - October 24, 2015
  45. Legacy Day
  46. University News - October 17, 2015
  47. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  48. Interim President
  49. Leadership Transition
  50. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  51. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  52. 2015 Homecoming
  53. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  54. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  55. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  56. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  57. Title IX
  58. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  59. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  60. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  61. Math Club Orientation
  62. Lady Patriot
  63. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  64. The walk for healthcare
  65. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  66. Volleyball Camp
  67. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  68. Board of Trustees - New Members
  69. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  70. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  71. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  72. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  73. Fisk 100 Revisited
  74. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  75. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  76. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  77. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  78. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  79. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  80. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  81. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  82. Alumna Named Executive Director
  83. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  84. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  85. 2015 Retool Your School
  86. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  87. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  88. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  89. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  90. Fisk University News - January 2015
  91. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  92. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  93. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  94. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  95. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  96. Christmas at Fisk
  97. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  98. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  99. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  101. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  102. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  103. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  104. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  105. Jubilee Day
  106. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  107. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  108. From a Spark to a Flame:
  109. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  110. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  111. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  112. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  113. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  114. Gables Elementary
  115. Press Release 04/24/14
  116. Press Release 04/10/14
  117. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  118. Retool Your School
  119. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  120. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  121. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  122. Business Week at Fisk University
  123. 2014 Honors Convocation
  124. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  125. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  126. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  127. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  128. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  129. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  130. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  131. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  132. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  133. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  134. Fisk Homecoming Schedule
  135. Fisk Homecoming
  136. Allstate Quotes for Education
  137. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  138. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  139. Honorary Degree Nominations
  140. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  141. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  142. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  143. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program