Tag Archives: African American

Songs When You Need Them: Ysaye Barnwell and the music of community, resistance, and power.

Adapted from UU World by Kimberly French
Join Ysaye at Hollyhock for Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition on July 22-27, 2016.

‘Don’t sing it in your finest classical voice,” Ysaye Barnwell gently cautioned. The former bass singer with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock was teaching a chant from central Africa’s Ituri Rainforest to a mostly white group at Rowe Camp, in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. She demonstrated with her powerful voice: “Ama-ee-boo Oh-ee-yay-ee. There’s a little yodel in there. You should love that. Close your eyes . . . that’s it! Perfect!”

For the past three decades Barnwell’s day job—when she wasn’t touring and recording with Sweet Honey—has been teaching the African American tradition of community singing to groups like this one all over the world. Clad in a black leather hat and jacket, with loads of gold rings and bangles, she took center stage in the rustic recreation hall.

She gave no written music. Everything was oral. We just listened. And watched. And, most of all, felt the soul of the music and learned where it comes from. In fact, Barnwell forbids taking notes or recording.

“I don’t know a translation I can articulate. But in central Africa, someone will start singing this chant whenever there’s discord. They’ll sing as long as they have to, till the community is ready to move forward and the spiritual leaders can come in. It may take hours, even days.” Continue reading Songs When You Need Them: Ysaye Barnwell and the music of community, resistance, and power.