VocalEssence brings Gullah to Minneapolis
By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune
Two hundred singers led by Melanie DeMore will pound the rhythm of Gullah music as VocalEssence bears “Witness.”
There is no sheet music, the conductor teaches by rote and the singers need to watch their feet lest a neighbor’s pounding stick misses its mark.
Not exactly VocalEssence’s wheelhouse, but the 130-voice chorus will take the Orchestra Hall stage next Sunday to beat out the spiritual rhythms of songs from the Sea Island Gullah tradition.
“At the first rehearsal last September, people were a bit surprised that they were going to have to do all this movement and use the pole to produce the rhythm,” said VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle. “But by the end of that evening, it felt like everyone had bought into it.”
Vocal activist Melanie DeMore has worked with the chorus — plus the 75-voice Patrick Henry High School concert choir — to get their chops up for “Stomp & Sing,” which is VocalEssence’s “Witness” program for 2014. She started the process in September, returned in January and will work with the singers again for a week before the concert.
“There is some real depth to what this is about,” Brunelle said. “By the time they are on stage, their comfort zone will be well established, and they get what she’s trying to do.”
DeMore, a teaching artist at the University of California, Berkeley, has crisscrossed the country as an evangelist for a form of musicmaking that starts with the beat of a stick. Fifteen years ago, she formed an a cappella choir of sixth-graders in the Oakland school district. Right now, she’s working with 430 kids in grades one through three in Oakland.She was a founding member of Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, a five-person a cappella percussion choir where she was told, “You’re going to play the stick.”
“I use the stick as a community strengthening tool,” DeMore said during a visit last month to work with the Minnesota choirs. “When you get everyone pounding and stomping, concentrating on the moment, your heartbeats start to align. That connects you to the other singers.”
DeMore’s father was from South Carolina, near where the Gullah people formed their community on the Sea Islands. Historically, this isolation helped the Gullah retain more of their culture. Their traditions were quite diverse, based on regional affiliations in Africa. One characteristic custom was the “ring shout,” a sort of ritual where people made a circle and pounded out a rhythm with stout sticks.
Slaveholders did not allow the Gullah to possess drums, fearing the passions that might be ignited. The sticks, which are carved and ornamented, resulted and the music retained a percussive quality.
Community and connections come up often as DeMore speaks about her work.
“The audience should feel bigger than when they came in, energized, fed, more connected,” she said. “Stick pounding is universal; it’s something you can do with anyone. You don’t need to speak the same language, and you are singing about your own experience as a human being.”
In Minnesota, she has led several workshops on pounding and making the sticks, a ceremony she believes “tightens the weave of community.”
The first half of the “Witness” program will be more traditional, Brunelle said. After intermission, though, DeMore will loosen things up.
“We keep our shoes on,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any sore toes so far.”