23 and 24 May 2015 will see a rare, one-off UK appearance of the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers in Birmingham’s Town Hall, where they last performed in 1874.
The significance of the Singers to the Black oral tradition in the UK - and potentially all music of Black origin - cannot be underestimated, as they were the first vocal group to perform Spirituals in Europe.
The Jubilee Singers were formed from a group of ex-slave music students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The University was set up in 1866 by Christian abolitionists who believed in the power of education to elevate former slaves and enable them to fully participate in society. Five years after opening its doors, Fisk was in dire financial straits, so its treasurer and music professor George L. White set up an ensemble of a cappella singers to take on a money-raising tour for the university.
At first, the Jubilee Singers’ performances were met with hostility and confusion from an audience - predominantly white, small-town folk - to whom their ‘slave songs’ were unfamiliar, and who expected a traditional ‘minstrel fashion’. Nevertheless, perseverance and sheer talent slowly turned opinion round and by 1872 they were performing in the White House.
A year later they travelled to Europe for the first time. During a visit to London, Queen Victoria was so impressed with the group and this ‘new style’ of music that she commissioned a portrait be painted of them as a gift. This has hung in Jubilee Hall, Fisk University’s first permanent building, ever since. According to popular belief she also gave Nashville its moniker, Music City, after hearing the Jubilee Singers perform; remarking that “with such beautiful voices, they had to be from the Music City of the United States.”
During this tour they also performed at the Town Hall in Birmingham in 1874, making it one of the first places in the UK to hear Spirituals. Fittingly then, this will be the venue and city for their return almost 150 years later, and they will be joined on stage on 24 May by Europe’s finest female a cappella quintet Black Voices, heirs to the Jubilee Singers‘ two centuries of Black oral tradition. During this concert both ensembles will perform a song written by composer and director Ken Burton especially for what will be a memorable musical experience not to be missed.
Paul T. Kwami, Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Musical Director said: “It is my greatest honour to return to the UK in May with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I am delighted to present the ensemble once more in Birmingham’s Town Hall where the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang in 1874. I am thankful that Fisk University has done so well in helping to preserve the tradition and legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and my students and I look forward to joining with Black Voices on 24 May in celebrating the beauty and power of music. It will be a truly memorable event.”
Black Voices’ Music Director Carol Pemberton said: “The opportunity to sing with Fisk Jubilee Singers is hugely exciting and a real privilege. It's amazing to think that the last time they were in Birmingham was at their groundbreaking concert at the Town Hall, over 140 years ago! Their pioneering work paved the way for Black Voices, so it's going to be a really special and unique occasion to see history come full circle as we perform together in that same Town Hall on 24 May.”