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Black history is a spiritual experience

Feb. 11: The American Spiritual Ensemble delivered a powerful performance at an evening convocation that brought inspiration to the campus.

American Spiritual Ensemble performing at Phelps Stokes Auditorium.

During the Stephenson Memorial Concert that celebrated Black History Month, the American Spiritual Ensemble graced Berea with its bold and powerful music to commemorate the history and understanding of the Negro spiritual.

Hoping to revive an art form that seems to have begun to escape the reach of younger generations, the ensemble, headed by director Everett McCorvey, used their deeply stirring and awe-inspiring musical performance to honor the historical impact American Negro spiritual has had within the black community, and provide a better understanding of the history of this distinct musical genre.

McCorvey is a professor of voice at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and serves as the university’s director of opera. He founded the American Music Ensemble in 1995. The group tours regularly around the world and has performed in many notable theaters and opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera and the Houston Grand Opera.

The gifted members of the ensemble – which include Dr. Kathy Bullock, chair of Berea College’s Music Department – were received by a visibly moved audience of faculty and students, who gave standing ovations and applause throughout the performance.

Bullock first heard of the America Spiritual Music Ensemble in a church in Richmond, Ky., where she was “blown away” by their performance. As a child, Bullock grew up singing many of the spirituals in her own hometown church in Washington D.C., but she admits that she had never heard as many phenomenal voices singing these spirituals at one time. After auditioning and being accepted into the ensemble, Bullock toured with the American Spiritual Ensemble and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and on the Bob Edwards public radio show, among other venues.

While Bullock does not regularly tour with the group when classes are in session, she is often available to participate in local performances.

“It’s been a thrill – and a blessing and a joy. Most of the time, I can’t make it through the whole concert without tears. It’s just a joy to be able to sing music that’s so close to my heart and have it done so well by such phenomenal voices for which the music was designed.”

Bullock said that she appreciated the ensemble because all of its members are among the best classically trained musicians and have the spirit and the connection for the music that comes from their own tradition. Bullock believes that when you combine those elements together, “It’s just phenomenal.”

Even senior music major Josh Slaton’s eyes twinkled as he pointed gleefully to his music professor during the convocation, saying, “See, that’s what I want to do!”

He excitedly explained later, “Just being able to see people who come from similar backgrounds as me doing what I love to do professionally – and in a realm that is so respected by all members of the community, and not just by one ethnicity – and to see someone not only in my voice part, but who also evokes the kind of emotion that I want to evoke—.”

Josh paused for a moment.

“For me to be able to see that and be able to turn around and be able to tell someone that’s what I want to do and have that music on the docket for me to sing this semester in applied voice [class] – it was a good thing. Overall it was an excellent convocation and I really was inspired.”

Josh also commented on how touching it was to see the number of members in the ensemble who have connections to Berea. One member, Tay Seals, had grandparents who graduated from Berea before the passing of the Day Law, a historic piece of legislation passed January 12, 1904 that prohibited white and black students from attending the same school. Berea College, the South’s first interracial and coeducational college, fought the Day Law but lost in the court of appeals. Consequently, Berea College gave land for Lincoln Institute in Shelby County, Ky., where black students could continue their education.

It was Seals’ grandfather Kirke Smith – who graduated from Berea College in 1884 – that worked with the Reverend James Bond – grandfather of the notable civil rights activist Julian Bond – to raise funding to open Lincoln Institute.

Another ensemble musician with connections to Berea College was alum Anne Grundy, whom the students fondly called “Ms. Anne.”

It was Grundy who initially recommended that Dr. McCorvey bring the group to perform in Berea. Grundy, ’68, has a B.A. in piano. She and her husband, who works at the University of Kentucky, have remained connected with many students who attend Berea through organizations like the African Student Association and the Black Student Union.

Slaton shared that he was equally inspired by both the contributions made by those who had such deeply rooted connections to Berea College, as well as the extended reach that the ensemble and the College have had in the Berea community and many other communities around the world.

“There’s not even a way to measure the amount of the effect that Berea has had,” he beamed.

Slaton was in attendance when the ensemble met with students in the music department to explain more about the history of the Negro spiritual, and give students guidance about the vocal training needed to perform at that caliber. He listened intently as Ms. Anne spoke about the history of the American Negro spiritual.

“It’s correct to say the ‘African American spiritual,’ but in history it’s referred to as the ‘Negro spiritual,"’ Grundy shared.

“There were once 6,000 of these songs and while many modern-day people in 2010 think that when we say Jesus and heaven, that’s what we mean. But that’s not what our ancestors meant. ‘Jesus’ was a coded word meaning absolute freedom by any means necessary. ‘Canaan’s land’ was Canada where there was no slavery. The Ohio River was the ‘River Jordan,'" she said.

"This is great, great music, and I know you sat there and you felt it, didn’t you? It tears you up, because you know it’s about something profound.”

Ms. Anne later shared how the impact of her experience performing with the ensemble continued to leave her inspired.

“It’s just a wonderful space, a healing space and it is inspiring. But for me, one of the great things that comes out of this experience is being connected to a people that many people in the world have said amount to nothing. But when you see this music, when you pay attention to the lyrics, when you feel the rhythm, I as an African American know – there’s no question that I come from greatness. The people who created this music didn’t make excuses. They had something on their minds. Four hundred to five hundred years later it continues to move us, so it’s a great sense of being a part of something incredible.”

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