Soprano Nigia Hunt is a junior at Durham School of the Arts. She and others are singing for Paul Kwami, auditioning for a solo in the Duke Performances concert.
Soprano Nigia Hunt is a junior at Durham School of the Arts. She and others are singing for Paul Kwami, auditioning for a solo in the Duke Performances concert. Leoneda Inge/NPR
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are known worldwide for their flawless voices and stellar performances of Negro spirituals. They're from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., but they travel around the world to perform their music. Negro spirituals were originally sung by slaves and remain tightly linked to African-American culture. Paul Kwami, the choir's musical director, said singing these spirituals was a way for slaves to lament their servitude, along with the hope of being free one day.
He hopes to use these songs to connect the past and present.
"It's part of [the students'] culture and if we don't expose them to this aspect of the culture, it will get lost," Kwami said.
Now he is on a five-city tour to help preserve these songs that have inspired so many people and help younger singers learn how to sing them with emotion. Kwami will be leading week-long "residencies" in southern communities in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina as part of a program sponsored by South Arts, a regional arts nonprofit. His first stop was at the Durham School of the Arts, which is known across North Carolina for its strong choral department.
Fisk Jubilee Singers musical director Paul Kwami directs young singers during his residency at Durham School of the Arts.
Fisk Jubilee Singers musical director Paul Kwami directs young singers during his residency at Durham School of the Arts. Leoneda Inge/NPR
Kwami is a perfectionist. He helps the group sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot": "I came here because of you, so you are my inspiration, and we will work together to make this happen. We'll have fun, right! Great! So let's sing again."
The girls are a little nervous. They get even more nervous knowing that Kwami might have them sing one at a time to make sure "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is performed just right. Sopranos are resting while the director turns to the tenors and basses.
Kwami stresses to the teenagers to let their minds, hearts and voices flow gently, quietly like a stream of water. And to hold the "m" in home.
Sean Grier is one of the choral directors at the Durham School of the Arts. He spent weeks preparing students for Kwami, which he says included teaching them the history behind this unique art form.
"The art of the Negro Spiritual is new for many of them. But we knew that with Dr. Kwami it would still take a lot of the same qualities and discipline that we use when singing Mozart and Bach," Grier said.
After the rehearsal, the students hum the spiritual as they walk to their next class.