Southernhay Church, Oct 16th 2021

We were delighted to be asked by DDE at the Global Centre (Devon Development Education) to take part in a workshop of ‘Gospel, Spirituals and music of South and West Africa’ in honour of black history month, or as DDE are calling it ‘not just black history month’. Our choir director Fran led a group of guest singers who had come to experience the workshop, alongside singers from Soul of the City singers. Black history is of course all of our history in the west, and it merits being told all year round not just simply for one month of the year.

The Spirituals, or ‘the Sorrow Songs’ as they were called by the African American enslaved people who first brought them into existence contain a special kind of magic that I believe speaks directly to our souls. From the beauty of these songs Gospel music was born, Blues burst forth, and r’n’b became the bedrock of pop music. Anything which has rhythm, a funky beat and a bass needs to doff it’s cap to Africa and black music. It was wonderful for us to tell the story of how these songs came into being and to honour their importance.

One of the Spirituals that Fran taught was the medley of three Spirituals put together originally by the inspirational Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock. To begin to understand the power that this song holds, we need to know about Harriet Tubman, one of the heroes of African American liberation. Harriet Tubman, or ‘Moses’ as she was known to slaves in captivity, was an escaped slave who in turn helped free numerous slaves herself. By her own count, she is said to have claimed seventy, but in her autobiography the number is much higher, approaching three hundred.

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