American Spiritual Ensemble
BY JIMMY TOMLIN
The High Point Enterprise
HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) – For nearly a quarter-century, the American Spiritual Ensemble has toured nationally and internationally with one mission – to keep the American Negro spiritual alive.
“As a child, I grew up hearing traditional Negro spirituals, mostly unaccompanied sometimes it might be with a piano, but it was usually just the voices,” explains Everett McCorvey, who founded the American Spiritual Ensemble in 1995 and directs the group to this day.
“After I graduated college and began my professional career, I began to realize this great spiritual tradition was being lost, and in its place was more gospel music with keyboards and drums and amplification and all of that. So, I wanted to try to preserve these spirituals.”
The highly acclaimed ensemble will perform Saturday evening at the High Point Theatre, and tickets are still available.
The ensemble, which typically tours with about 25 singers – all of whom are accomplished soloists in their own right – performs in the style of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a cappella ensemble from Fisk University that has specialized in singing spirituals since its founding in the late 1800s.
According to McCorvey, he was exposed to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other choirs during the civil rights era of the 1960s, when the ensemble performed at his family’s church in Montgomery, Alabama.
“There were these great choirs that came through Montgomery in solidarity and support of the civil rights movement,” he recalls. “They had a sound that I felt was so rich and beautiful, and the melodies were just haunting. That beautiful sound always stayed in my head.”
McCorvey adds, however, that it’s not just the music that resonates with audiences – it’s also the message within the music.
“Part of what keeps these old spirituals alive is that they tell stories,” he says.
“So people can glean from the life of the slaves and how they handled their oppressive situation through the music. I think people respond to these songs that have such powerful messages. While the act of slavery is no longer legal, people are still enslaved in a lot of ways – they can be a slave to drugs, to alcohol, to abuse – and what happens is these songs with messages give us a way out. They’re powerful, and the way they make you feel is empowered. I think that’s why audiences respond so positively to our concerts the music touches them in very unique ways.”
Singing arrangements of four, six and even eight parts, the ensemble performs such spirituals as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Wade in the Water” and “Walk Together, Children.”
The concert then expands beyond the spirituals.
“We start off with some traditional spirituals, and then we’ll do some derivatives of the spirituals,” McCorvey says. “We’ll go into jazz, blues, gospel, popular music, even Broadway tunes – those are all derivatives of the spiritual. One of our most popular songs is ‘Circle of Life’ from `The Lion King,’ which goes right in line with spirituals.”
For more information about the American Spiritual Ensemble, visit www.americanspiritualensemble.com.