December 2005

Nathaniel Dett Chorale
An Indigo Christmas... Great Joy
December 14 & 16, 2005 George Weston Hall Toronto
New Traditions
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert
Last night at the George Weston Recital Hall, the trail-blazing Nathaniel Dett Chorale presented the Canadian première of the Nguzo Saba Suite, Op.41 composed by Glenn Edward Burleigh in 1993.

Nguzo Saba are the seven principles of the philosophy of Kawaida which was developed by the organisation Us, founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in response to the Watts riots in Los Angeles in the 60s. Created to strengthen, unify and bring peace and pride to the traumatized community and to all African Americans, Kawaida melds Christian and non-religious ideas about what is good and divine, about what human beings should aspire to and what they can achieve.

Its central “holiday”, Kwanzaa (from the Swahili for first fruits), coincides with the Christmas season, beginning on December 26 (to avoid the commercial side of Christmas) and ending on January 1. Kwanzaa traditions are built on African harvest festivals, not specific to any particular country, bringing people together to celebrate community, family and ancestors and to give thanks for their blessings and life itself. It is inclusive.

This performance of the Nguzo Saba Suite opened with Kwanza Msingwana at the back of the hall, drumming an invitation to the spirits to join us in celebration of Kwanzaa. Moya Garrison Msingwana joined the call on his drum as his father, drumming ceremoniously, walked down the aisle to the stage. After being presented to the audience and thanked by the warm and distinguished conductor Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, father and son departed, leaving the stage to Mr. Blyden-Taylor, the choir and the pianist Gregory Oh.

Dark and dramatic, delicate and jewel-like, in a romantic period meets modern jazz style, Gregory’s piano accompaniment proved to be as enjoyable as the voices of the chorale and made me think about investigating Nathaniel Dett’s piano concertos. Nathaniel Dett, Canada’s first black composer was inspired by Dvorák’s example of incorporating folk music into classical music. He is best-known for writing choral music using spirituals and folk songs as thematic material. Mr. Dett was also an excellent pianist. He studied with the famed Nadia Boulanger in France and is said to have had exceptional technique.

Burleigh’s Nguzo Saba Suite, a modern and sophisticated work, fuses elements of jazz, blues, R&B, African music and European classical choral music, in the spirit of Nathaniel Dett. Each of its seven movements expresses one of the seven principles of Kawaida.

Brainerd Blyden-Taylor

– Umoja (Unity) starts off with quiet unison voices, takes us through a choral chant that rises in intensity and pulls us rhythmically along to a quiet end.

– Kujichagulia (Self-determination) communicates invincible determination using a powerful rhythm overlaid with criss-crossing voices, creating an African polyrhythmic feel.

– Ujima (Collective work and responsibility), starts with the The achingly beautiful solo voice of Andrew Gunpath as the lost son. His soul cries out to the village to lend a helping hand and the village responds with support and encouragement "Look up, O man of color".

– Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) is jazzy and upbeat, celebrating work, its fruits and the sharing of its fruits with the community and the Lord.

– Nia (Purpose), starts tentatively and pensively, asking, “What is my purpose?” The harmonious ending urges us “to love the Lord and to love man”.

– Kuumba (Creativity) asks the Lord, source of all creativity, to show us how to make the world a better place, how to teach the illiterate to read, to help the despairing and to house the homeless.

– Imani (Faith) first focuses on faith, then summarizes the need for each principle, ending with the words "Celebrate the Kwanzaa Nguzo Saba".

The second half of the program, entitled Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas is a suite of nine traditional Christmas carols sung in untraditional ways. The nine titles are: “Joy to the World”, “O Holy Night”, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Away in a Manger”, “Infant Lowly, Infant Holy”, “You Oughta Know” and “What Child Is This?” Michael McElroy, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red created fresh arrangements of these carols originally to be sung by the Broadway Inspirational Voices.

For this part of the program, the choir was backed by a seven-piece ensemble led by the multi-talented pianist, singer, bandleader and radio host Andrew Craig. All of the soloists, Melissa Davis, Justin Bachus, Nadine McHorge and Karen Outram were wonderful, and I hesitate to single out any one of them, but I think Lucas Marchand deserves special mention for his stirring and expressive voice, soloing as he did in his first year with the chorale. Alana Bridgewater’s compelling gospel-blues rendition of "Infant Lowly, Infant Holy" was nothing less than astounding. She left much of the audience slack-jawed and some teary-eyed as well. As Blyden-Taylor said, “I’m sure the 14th century never heard it like this”. In response to a standing ovation at the end of the evening’s program, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor turned back to the choir to reprise “Joy to the World” as an encore. Give thanks.

I think Nathaniel Dett would be proud to have such an excellent and expertly conducted chorale named after him. Together, everyone created a joyous and thought-provoking evening of polished and moving music, cause for celebration and reflection.

There are two more concerts in 2006 at the same Hall. Verse in Song will feature the words of African-American poets in song. Let Us Rise in Love will feature the works of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, Ysaye M. Barnwell’s jazz choral work in response to the events of September 11, her Truth Pressed to Earth based on text adapted from Martin Luther King Jr., and David Baker’s Images, Shadows and Dreams.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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