Each fall, the First Universalist Singers gather for a day long retreat. This time is set aside for us to work on specific musical concepts, introduce new music and grow together as a community. This year, instead of having our own retreat, our choir joined with 170 Unitarian Universalists from all over Colorado from August 26-28 at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland to retreat and learn from Ysaÿe Barnwell. If you recognize her name, it might be because we perform a lot of her music on Sunday morning. Not only is Dr. Barnwell a prolific composer but she was a member of the acclaimed African-American female a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock for over 30 years. If you are not acquainted with “Sweet Honey” yet, you need to stop what you are doing right now and get acquainted! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAJBZXIzKcY
Since leaving the group three years ago, Ysaÿe (pronounced ee-z-eye or ee-say) has been able to concentrate more on her workshops sharing the history, influence, and power of African and African-American singing traditions with audiences of many backgrounds. Most recently in May, Dr. Barnwell was appointed by President Obama to the National Council of the Arts. Her presence and contributions were simply a gift to our UU choral communities.
Throughout the weekend, we were taken on a journey from Africa, through slavery in the US, and the early 20th-century African American church. One of the first pieces we sang came from the Mbuti people who are one of the many indigenous pygmy people in the Congo. According to Dr. Barnwell, the chant is “sung to pull all of the members of the community into the center of the community. It can be sung for hours and, some people say, even days. If that’s what it takes to pull everyone into a like‐mindedness.” I find the chant intoxicating. The melody is sung again and again in a canon, with each part following just one beat after the previous. It is the canon that is magical: listening to the singing, you begin to hear melodies emerge that are not being sung by anyone – they come into existence only when the canon is sung correctly. It is said that the elders would not enter into the center of the community until those melodies could be heard. Only when the individual singer would let go of the insistence that their part is most important and allow a deeper hearing and listening of all that is around them can the melodies of community emerge. In the Mbuti culture, they sing until this moment occurs. What an incredible lesson for us! Authentic and undivided listening can only happen when we can hear each other clearly, free from the attachments to our desires and distractions.
I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Barnwell on several occasions. Each time I come away with something new and this time I was struck by how much one can learn about another culture through their music. It reminded me that how we do any one thing is how we do all things. By studying the music and the way Africans and African Americans not only create but perform their music, I can learn so much about the people and their way of life.
The weekend was rich and there is so much more to share. Please do ask one of our choir members about it, I am sure they are still moved by the experience. What I experienced was a reminder of how good it is to sing with others without the need for performance. We were a large community of singers that learned about each other through learning music, eating together, and socializing in a beautiful setting. The people that participated in this blessed weekend are forever connected to each other through this unforgettable event.