Thursday, January 20, 2011

South African Singing Groups and African-American University Jubilee Singing Groups

I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the musical and social connections between the vocal groups in South Africa and those of Jubilee singers from the Historically Black Colleges in the United States. Although the ideas and conclusions expressed herein have yet to be fully formed, I think the observations are worth sharing, even in this nascent state. With any luck this will eventually develop into a conference paper, so please feel free to offer your comments, concerns or insights on the matter.

With the recently concluded semester I had the privilege of taking a course in American popular and vernacular musics. During one of the lectures, Dr. David Evans—noted Blues specialist and Grammy award winner—spent considerable time on the formation and proliferation of singing groups at such schools as Fisk, Howard, and Tuskeegee Universities, a phenomenon which occurred at the turn of the 20th century. As he was playing an example from 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quintet, a group associated with the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School, I was struck by the sonic similarities between this music and South African vocal groups like Solomon Linda and His Evening Songbirds and the more contemporary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Following up on these musical connections, I discovered that university Jubilee groups and South African vocal groups do have interconnected histories despite the musics being separated by many miles and having arisen from somewhat divergent cultures; that is, post-slavery America and Anglo-conquered Africa.

The Jubilee groups are a product of African American spirituals fusing with Western classical sensibilities. Through this process, university Jubilee groups presented folk material in a Western classical idiom by relying on cultivated voices and formal performance practices, thus bridging the gap between “art” and “folk” realms (the significance of such, is an article in an of itself). The resultant music exploded into the collective consciousness of America, and soon the world, with ferocity that went unmatched until Bieber-mania (now entering into the “popular” realm). These spirituals, with their wonderfully lush textures and close, sliding vocal harmonies were praised by the lay music consumer, music aficionados, and even the most stringent German-born musicologists of the day (if you have ever read any Adorno or Dalhaus, you most certainly have an impression of the astounding levels of curmudgeonly-ness the latter were capable of). At the height of the popularity of the Jubilee groups, ensembles like those from Fisk and Howard Universities were traveling the world performing for sold out audiences and even for the occasional royal court. During these worldwide tours, groups often stopped off at harbor towns, such as Cape Town, South Africa, as it took a long time to take a boat around the world. While docked, performances for locals were inevitable.

The Americans were sure to make an impression on the black South Africans, largely because the music of the university groups was concordant with that of their own. That is to say, both musics relied on similarly thick vocal textures and close harmonies. The South African tradition is rooted in the Zulu Kingdom (1818-1897) and thus was established a decade or so after the United States ended the practice of importing people as slaves (from 1808 onward, all slaves in America were born in America; a trend that led to the development of a distinctly unique African American culture), which suggests that both styles developed independently, as slaves in America did not possess musical memory of Zulu musical traditions.

Apart from the musicality, the social implications of Jubilee singing did not go unnoticed by the South Africans. The university singers, through their fancy suits and sophisticated countenance, occupied a social tier more in line with their white oppressors—if literal equality was not accomplished, and I don’t mean to suggest that it was, the semblance of such was, at least temporarily, present. South Africa, at the time, was under the tyranny of the white aristocracy and black South Africans were not blind to the similar injustices endured by African Americans. As such, black South Africans saw something in these singing groups that seemed worthy of mimicry and thus began to synthesize practices of the Jubilee groups with their own traditional music; a coalescence that resulted in the development and popularization of the vocal style proliferated by groups like the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and later problematically appropriated by Paul Simon). Furthermore, with this adaptation, the music also once again makes the migration between “art,” “folk” and “pop.”

Here are a couple clips so that you can see the similarities for yourself (and yes, the second example is the original recording of what would, thanks to Pete Seeger and later The Tokens, later become the painfully obnoxious “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).