Unchained melodies 

Moses Hogan played his own arrangement of "Deep River" eight times in about an hour at Disney Institute during a picture-perfect February afternoon, once for each of the African-American high-school vocalists who joined him onstage, one at a time, to compete for two college scholarships. But the day was about much more than competition; with their songs, the students also were playing an important role in preserving and promoting a revered art form.

The Negro spirituals sung that day derived from the field hollers of American slaves. These raw vocal origins have found a new life in formal music, and the songs have no stronger proponent in America than Orlando's Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation.

Perhaps the revival of Negro spirituals as seen in Orlando is a perfect marriage of art and community, with lyrics resonating into the consciousness of those who hear the songs. So believes Rudi Cleare, director of the scholarship foundation, a man of deeds who has marshaled the energies of others, including teachers, families and art aficionados, to give African-American high-school students a new reason to sing their hearts out.

Believing in both the sanctity of an art form and in the young voices that could keep it vibrant and meaningful, Cleare says the foundation was his way of preserving the legacy of this music while promoting contemporary artists whose talents can keep "the original African-American cultural expression" alive.

As the songs were sung at the competition, one might have noticed that many different artists were involved in this cultural preservation: the kids on stage, themselves youthful descendants of slaves who sang these songs as a way to set their souls free; the celebrated composer/arranger working with them; and the administrators and donors who availed this opportunity for helping shape their future.

Tarard Chester may be a prime example of what could result if the program succeeds.

Growing up on Orlando's west side can be a challenge for a young black male. No wonder then that, living in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl, Chester says his childhood dream was to join the ranks of those professional athletes commonly held up as role models for kids like him. Blessed with a suitable physique, a good mind and the disposition to train hard without complaint, he saw the NFL in his future. That is, until he joined ranks with four other boys who entered to compete for the Grady-Rayam Prize in Sacred Music, a competition that awards one scholarship each to a male and a female student.

By the day of competition, however, Chester was the only male remaining in the field. One young man's father had decided that basketball camp was preferable to singing for his son. Other students (and parents) fielded more compelling reasons for dropping out: family problems like death or illness, and even one, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who encountered a conflict based on religious conviction. Amazingly, Chester arrived at the competition knowing nothing of the drama that had built up around him. But there was no guarantee the prize would be his. He would have to perform to high standards, and perhaps even exceed them, before any final honors could be bestowed.

And indeed, the bar was set high. All aspects of the competition were extraordinarily professional. The young singers all were trained vocalists performing in the classical recital style, which does not allow for ornamentation, scooping or amplification; the contestants couldn't jazz up their performances or gesture inordinately. It was each person alone on stage, both real and existential: Each performer simultaneously faced the past and future. Such an opportunity was denied the teens' forefathers who, as slaves, could face only their fears and imaginations.

The presence of these ancestors, though, was palpable. To give these songs their due, the singer must transport him or herself back to the cotton fields where, from the African call-and-response tradition, these spirituals were born. In the work camps, a leader would call out a phrase and the others would extend the sentiment or otherwise respond. Sometimes the words would be codified to keep the slave master from knowing what the slaves were thinking, dreaming or planning. For example, the lyrics "Way down yonder by myself, I couldn't hear nobody pray" signified that a runaway slave was poised to reach the Underground Railroad.

The piece commissioned for this year's competition and required of all performers, "Deep River," was squarely in this tradition. The note that "my home is over Jordan" echoes the religious yearning to find relief from life's troubles in a new life after death, but all the same refers to a real-world plan for escaping into the freedom to be found "up North." Other even more subtle characteristics of spirituals also were present. Singers would, for instance, moan or hum in places for the benefit of the devil "who knew you were talking to God, but didn't know what you were saying," according to Robert Williams of Bethune-Cookman College, an authority on black sacred music in the oral tradition and chairman of the board of directors of the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation. The young performers who took the stage at the Disney Institute had to empathize with their forefathers to lend these songs a meaning that can't be found in school books. As teacher and arranger Hogan told them, it takes "conviction" to sing such songs of grief and deliverance.

With biblical stories as a cornerstone, these songs began in the early 1600s to account for one's personal relationship to God. But their impact goes well beyond the individual. Since the slaves were kept illiterate, the songs constitute a wellspring about the journey of blacks in America. The spirituals fed popular forms of black music, including gospel -- 20th-century church music that's an up-tempo and joyous tribute to the tenets of the New Testament -- jazz and the blues. Perhaps it's a stretch, but spirituals could be considered a counterpart to rap, which is also a music of its time, born of estrangement. The spiritual song was created by and for a particular people in bondage. But as those who know the music will attest, its impact is not limited to race, to a historical time frame, or even to America's national boundary.

So when the eight competitors finally took their places on stage, Hogan's first chords were the start of a challenge. Two seemingly contradictory qualities had to be presented without doubt: a virtuoso performance and an unlettered message. The words they were singing were not designed as performance pieces. There was no sheet music for the slaves who long ago breathed life in the words. Only if the young interpreter of the song could lose the self to the music, gaining access to the integrity of a rural black dialect from the past, as well as to the aspirations that drove these slave songs centuries ago -- understanding, for instance, that "chariots" and "wings" were references to transportation and transformation, that this world is not home -- could these teen-agers bring the song to life.

In the audience, family members, teachers and guests representing Orlando Opera Company and the Community Foundation of Central Florida sat in clusters throughout the theater. These two organizations are instrumental in helping Rudi Cleare fulfill his dream of seeing youths include God in their maturation through participating in the preservation of the African-American art form and by setting their eyes on a college education. The silence of the audience was prayerlike, broken only by one round of applause for each contestant after they performed first the required number and then a second spiritual, one of their choosing. It was a form of tribute befitting the seriousness with which these young people approach and interpret such sacred songs. Said competitor Chanda Cummings: "Anyone can sing, but you can't put everything you have into a song until you have experienced it. Struggle is in our heritage."

Mae Chester, Tarard Chester's grandmother and a Pentecostal minister, may have said it best when talking about the effect of religious music in black worship. "When the singer believes in God," she said, "the words are anointed and flow into the audience."

Tarard Chester himself explained the nearly motionless demeanor he displayed on stage: "I think of the song while I'm singing the song, so much so that I become afraid to move or gesture, because that might distract me. I try so hard to put myself in the place of the person telling the story or being talked about in the story."

When the competition was over, there were, everyone knew, eight winners. All the students distinguished themselves as they honored the voices of generations ago. The judges rated DeAngela Roberson, a returning vocalist from the previous year, as best among the females. And Tarard Chester was indeed named the male winner, but this was not as inevitable as one might think.

For Chester, the final moments were especially tense. A whisper that he might not have it wrapped up if the expert judges decided that his performance didn't make the grade was deafening. Backstage, his occasional jaw-tightening belied his otherwise stoic expression. But on stage he looked out into and through the audience, and became anonymous as he let himself go back in time. There were no doubts when he finished the last note of his selected piece, "Go Down Moses." His song had worked its magic. As he had said: "The story that I'm telling, I can relate to. It happens everyday at school. I'm trying to get them `other students` to think positive."

In the background of the competition's drama stood the teachers who work tirelessly to train and coach the young singers, but can only look on with hopeful faces as a pupil performs. Chester, along with other students of Jones High School, is in the debt of Edna Sampson Hargrett, Florida's Secondary Music Teacher of the Year for 1998. As DeAngela Roberson, from Jones High School, said, "Our teachers go beyond. They're like our mothers, even down to telling us how to dress when it's cold out."

As people left the theater and the contestants posed for pictures with the judges and revered guests, it was as though Hogan hadn't played "Deep River" eight times. Although he had arranged the song expressly for the foundation and played it with clinical precision for the competitors, it did what it was supposed to do -- give the artists a structure with which to identify their cultural past and build their futures. Each time he played the song was a first.

More by Gary Monroe


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2016 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation