By Gianluca D’Elia
Joy, love and glorious music filled the room at Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York’s first African-American church, when the Westminster Jubilee Singers sang in two worship services on Feb. 21.
An important site during the Harlem Renaissance, Abyssinian Baptist is considered a center for Harlem’s tradition of gospel music.
Jubilee conductor Brandon Waddles, ’13, said the experience of performing at Abyssinian was spiritually refreshing for himself and the students in the group.
“For many of them, it was their first time taking part in a traditional African-American church service,” Waddles said. “However, every one of them agreed it felt ‘like home’ to them and they were one with the congregation.”
Several members of the group were not regular churchgoers. For sophomore voice performance major Abby Merk, singing at Abyssinian was an opportunity to reconnect with her Catholic faith. The day after the Jubilee Singers came back from Harlem, Merk went to a Catholic church to feel reunited with her roots.
“For the first time in a very long time, I felt something when we sang at Abyssinian in Harlem,” Merk said. “Even when my faith was at its dimmest in my life, going to church didn’t necessarily reignite anything inside me. But after singing ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ being in such a welcoming environment with so many lovely people, and receiving inspiration from the pastor, I can say this experience lit up my soul.”
Regardless of religious affiliations, Abyssinian’s congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, welcomed the Jubilee Singers with open arms and even had the group do an encore during the offertory part of the church service.
“The communal spirit of music-making connects us all in a way that supersedes any conflicting ideologies and respective faiths,” Waddles said.
For senior music major Bill Mosher, the services at Abyssinian were on a “different level” from any other church he had been to previously.
“Each section of the service was a moment to come together,” Mosher said. “We were welcomed as if we’d be going to the church for years. The sermon preached about teaching youth to love one another, and holding yourself accountable for your own misdeeds.”
Mosher said one of his heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor from Germany who founded the Confessing Church in opposition to the Nazi regime. Mosher said Abyssinian Baptist Church was where Bonhoeffer first learned about American spirituality.
“Eighty-five years later, I can still feel the energy and spirit he brought from Abyssinian back to Germany,” Mosher said.
Junior voice performance major Amani Cole-Felder said performing at Abyssinian was one of many rewarding experiences she has had in her three semesters with the Jubilee Singers. In the past, Jubilee has also performed with notable alumni such as Laquita Mitchell and Anwar Robinson, and made appearances at cultural events on the Lawrenceville campus.
“Professor Waddles always encourages us to be ‘reckless’ during rehearsals and the performance process,” Cole-Felder said. “The rehearsal atmosphere is very open as well as productive.”
The “recklessness” Waddles encourages allows the Jubilee Singers to perform “on such a passionate and a high level,” Cole-Felder said. Since many of the pieces the Jubilee Singers perform require a high amount of artistic expression, the singers have to have healthy vocal musicality, an understanding of each piece’s context, and an understanding of how their individual voices fit within the music and among other singers’ voices.
“Jubilee is an ensemble experience where you can grow your vocal abilities, make friends, learn from others and make some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear,” Cole-Felder said.
The Jubilee Singers stands out from other choirs at Westminster because of its specific focus on African-American culture. Modeled after the historically acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville, the Jubilee performs African-American spirituals and folk songs, African chants and dances, classical music composed by African-American composers, and gospel and secular songs by legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Andre Crouch.
“Outside of a single spiritual in a concert or so, [Jubilee] is the only place in the choir college where we sing songs of the African-American idiom,” Mosher said. “Every concert is a revelation. My faith has grown, my understanding of the African-American culture has grown, and my love for all God’s creatures has grown from my participation in the Jubilee Singers.”
Waddles said having a group like the Jubilee Singers is crucial not only at Westminster, but everywhere, since the music they sing is “the true American music.” Spirituals formed the basis not only for gospel, jazz and blues, but also the genres people listen to most frequently — rock ’n’ roll, hip hop and even country.
“Bach, Beethoven and Brahms will always have a place in the standard repertoire,” Waddles said. “But we should never neglect the music that built our own country’s culture.”
Published in the 3/02/16 edition.