|An Important and Enjoyable Addition to Any CD Collection
by Anna Lisa Eyles February 2007
This Sunday afternoon, dramatic coloratura soprano Denise Williams launches her new CD, Walk Together Children: A Collection of Black and Jewish Music, at the Al Green Theatre on Spadina at Bloor. Not merely an eclectic mix of folk songs, spiritual and classical, but a mix with a clear theme and intent, are the twenty haunting and beautiful works documenting historic segments of both the Jewish and Black struggles spanning Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America.
The compilation of Ladino, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Creole, and African traditions including spiritual and classical vocal styles, begins with Wade in the Water, culminating in a jazzy Black spiritual. Though there are several historic versions of the lyrics, each refers to Moses, the Israelites or their flight out of Egypt. Its no surprise then to find that this song was a warning and direction to runaway slaves to avoid tracking and capture by crossing water.
This shared struggle is the basis for the concept of the Walk Together Children concerts and now the CD. As Williams puts it, There is a deep affinity between the historic struggles of Blacks and Jews, and a rich common ground in their music as well. They have each faced centuries of oppression and have fought long and hard for equality and freedom, often supporting one another together with hope, faith and the saving grace of humour. In this recording, one is immediately struck by Williams gently conveyed intensity of feeling and the fact that her lovely voice does not overcome the message of the lyrics. Her highly developed vocal technique sustains her through each distinctive vocal style and musical genre.
The sad and beautiful Hebrew Dona, Dona previously recorded by Joan Baez, incorporates repetition as do many traditional Black folk songs. Williams gentle and even vibrato enhances the emotion of the piece. A philosophical statement, it tells the story of a calf on his way to slaughter while the farmer assuages his guilt by telling the calf that he is responsible for his own fate since had he been born a swallow with wings, he could have flown away. The symbolic fatted calf does not understand the reason for his persecution. The pathos of the calfs bewilderment is intensified by the literary biblical allusion to the wind (or world) which is seemingly impervious to the fate of the calf. This Zionist yearning is also found in the song Yam Lid earlier in the CD.
Antiguan born Williams sings St. Johns Market, an upbeat folk song ostensibly about the excitement of going to market. Trinidadian Papa Didnt Know speaks of the keeping of secrets seen on an evening outing, too horrible to acknowledge as illustrated by a monkey in a tree who hears, sees and speaks no evil. The parents are exonerated from all responsibility through the repetition of Papa didnt know, Mama didnt know. Repetition and rhythm are fundamental to the Black musical traditions which preceded reggae, soca and rapso.
My favourite work in this CD, The Last War, performed here in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, is sung with such intensity of feeling and poignancy that the addition of Goldhamers wonderful harmony are enough to moisten the eyes. The title song and last track on this CD, Walk Together Children, is an American Black spiritual, with some noted Toronto vocalists including Ali Garrison who, along with Williams is one of the founding members of The Nathaniel Dett Chorale.
Williams has performed many of these works at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, the Glenn Gould Studio, the Ashkenaz Festival, Yiddishland Café and many synagogues as well as having them featured on CBC Radios Music Around Us. On the CD, pianists Brahm Goldhamer and Nina Shapilsky are both perfect in their performance and understanding of the works and the subjugated role of the keyboards. Percussionist Sam Donkoh adds his expertise, playing rhythms true to the roots of the music performed.
The commonality of suffering, longing with the ability to retain and celebrate lifes joys are evident in all of these historical works of diverse languages and areas of origin. Many different styles of both voice and music along with Williams incredible vocal range, flexibility and ability to convey the heart of the song, are complicit in the overall message of this CD, making it an important addition to any musical collection.