ICYMI: The American Negro Spiritual Is Alive and Well, as a Princeton Audience Can Testify

Tuesday, February 20, 2024
Princeton, NJ --After receiving an invitation to the February 17 concert featuring the American Spiritual Ensemble from Gabriel Crouch, director of Choral Activities and professor of the Practice of Music at Princeton University, I was rewarded with an event not to be missed. Richardson Auditorium on the University campus was close to capacity for a breathtakingly, almost heartbreakingly beautiful concert.

The Ensemble was joined in some songs by members of the impressive Princeton University Glee Club and Chamber Choir. The latter two groups began the evening's performance with several spirituals, including an emotionally sensitive rendition of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

In his introduction, Everett McCorvey, director of the Ensemble, said he founded the group in 1995 to preserve the music of American Negro slaves and keep the American Negro spiritual alive. The successful and respected Ensemble has performed in many venues in the U.S., as well as in England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Scotland, and Spain.

McCorvey said that Negro melodies were a source of comfort, hope, and faith and added that there are over 6,000 songs, around 3,000 of which are documented and many more were passed down through oral tradition. McCorvey continued that enslaved people were not permitted to speak their native African languages or sing their traditional songs, which motivated them to create a "call and response" singing technique during which friends could communicate with each other. For the spiritual "Go Down Moses," which was eloquently sung by bass Kenneth Overton, McCorvey had the audience sing the response "Let My People Go."

The richness, musicality, spirit, and velocity of the Ensemble and its soloists enlisted enthusiastic applause after each piece. Of note were soprano Alicia Helm's expressive "Come Down, Angels," countertenor Darryl Taylor's passionate "Lord, I'll Go," baritone Roosevelt Credit's vibrant "Heaven, Heaven," soprano Hope Koehler's expressive "Cert'nly Lawd," John Wesley Wright's enthusiastic "I Know I've Been Changed," and Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming's expressive "You Must Have That True Religion."

Soloist soprano Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, a 2014 graduate of Princeton University and now a scholar, composer, and singer, merits special mention. In her introduction, Tawengwa said she was grateful for the support and guidance of her two mentors, MCorvey from the Ensemble and earlier from Crouch, when she was a Princeton student and who is now godfather to her son.

Tawengwa, who grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe, is the granddaughter of the entrepreneur founder of the first Black-owned hotel in Highfield, Harare (formerly Salisbury). To bridge the space between Zimbabwe and Princeton, Tawengwa has drawn from the University's ethos and its Music Department. After Princeton, she earned her doctorate from the University of Kentucky and returned to town to appear in McCarter’s production of the musical “Dreaming Zenzile” in 2022 and to serve as a Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Performing Arts.

Tawengwa sang "Balm in Gilead" while playing the kalimba, a percussion instrument that consists of a series of wooden bars of varying lengths that are mounted on a sound box. Her graceful and vibrant rendition of the classic spiritual brought the audience to its feet in a prolonged, standing ovation.
After attending this enriching and memorable concert, I can't wait to attend the Music Department's next event.

Original Article
By Linda Sipprelle