December 2006

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale | An Indigo Christmas, Rockin’ for the World
December 15, 2006George Weston Recital HallToronto
The Meaning of Christmas
by Anna Lisa Eyles

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, named after the African-Canadian composer of the same name, is a choir of twenty-one trained voices. This was the 8th annual performance of An Indigo Christmas, subtitled Rockin’ for the World.

The full hall darkens as unseen, Kwanza Msingwana, beats his drum in traditional complex rhythms in the distance. His call is answered on stage by Akfuna Sifuba, tenor Chorale member and arranger of this drumming invocation. This call to the Great Spirit and ancestors is affirmed by a little drummer boy, Moya Garrison Msingwana. The call, captivating the audience, focuses our feelings on the basic needs of the human spirit. The audience begins to clap the time, enabling the drums to take up ever more complex and urgent messages, each playing counterpoint to the other while the choir dances and begins to sing in an ancient tongue. So began the celebration of this season’s tribute to mothers giving life, nurturing children and world hope for tomorrow.

As a soloist from the choir makes her way to the front to begin singing a cappella, a beatific and proud smile lights up the face of the little drummer boy. The audience understands that the pride he shows is because the soloist is his Mother, alto Ali Garrison. The theme and spiritual messages are laid down for the evening’s performance.

Such is the musical comprehension, deep thought, spiritual symbolism and artistry of Artistic Director and Chorale founder, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor. He has lovingly interwoven these elements through his dedication to Afrocentric music in its many guises, embracing the theme of children of the world and the Christmas story in his symbolic tableau.

Accompanied by award-winning pianist Joy Lee, The Nathaniel Dett Chorale led us through the traditional story of the three kings who came to visit Christ at his birth in composer Margaret Bonds’ nine-movement cantata, The Ballad of the Brown King, Balthazar, written in the 1950s. Bonds collaborated with poet, playwright and author Langston Hughes on the lyrics of this work she dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The ballad combined several black musical traditions including jazz, blues and spirituals. The audience seemed unable to withhold their applause, especially after the calypso movement. Blyden-Taylor promised the choir will perform more of Bonds’ works in the future.

During intermission, in his quiet but compelling way, Blyden-Taylor confided to me that his chats with the audience between pieces are not so much “about the music as to make the audience part of the music.” To the audience, he conveys a seasonal message that children are our hope for the future. Referring to Dione Taylor’s upcoming performance, he joked that both he and Ms. Taylor are “P.K.’s” or preachers’ kids.

During the second half of the evening, lullabies and music with gentle rocking rhythms are enhanced by the Choir’s swaying and continue the theme of cradling and nurturing children. "Glory to the Newborn King", composed by Robert Morris, is also sung a cappella with all of the complexity of harmonies and counterpoint necessary to any unaccompanied choral composition. Since the calibre of voices in the Chorale is so high, the audience is treated to many soloists. Certainly there is a challenge to blend and balance such strongly developed voices.

Dione Taylor more than corroborated the recognition coming her way these last three years. Featuring the incredibly talented jazz pianist David Restivo and bassist Jon Maharaj, Taylor sang two selections from her latest CD, I Love Being Here With You. The first piece, "I’ll Be There" she wrote during challenging times and the second offering "Alone", was written to commemorate her grandmother.

Taylor’s second CD has been well received but Taylor’s live performance is exponentially superior to any recording. Her smoky, soaring voice, rich in resonance, has a depth and completeness that make her style all her own. Taylor treats the audience to her own rendition of "The Christmas Song", arranged by Cindy Fairbank. Unlike other versions, this one stands very well on its own and could easily become her trademark Christmas ballad.

Earlier this year, Taylor and the Chorale collaborated through CBC as part of a fund-raising effort for the Daily Bread Food Bank. They recorded "O Holy Night" for the CD, Sounds for the Season. Blyden-Taylor reported that to date, the recording has raised over $80,000 and seven thousand pounds of food.

Dione Taylor (Nov. 06)

Many members of the audience have made An Indigo Christmas an important part of their annual Christmas tradition. Jane, an audience member, remarked that she had first been impressed by the choir on a Vision TV program. She stated with some surprise that “They are even better live!” The Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a not-for-profit group of classically trained singers, was founded to fill a void in Canada’s musical landscape by featuring Afrocentric music of all kinds. Clearly, the diverse ethnicity of both the choir and audience indicate the program’s universal appeal and success.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Anna Lisa Eyles
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