African British composer, conductor, and teacher Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was affectionately referred to in his time as the African “Mahler.” His most popular work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast for soli, chorus and orchestra (listen below), is a shining example of his command of musical form, texture, harmony, and orchestration, which resulted in overnight fame and respect among colleagues that few men of color could have hoped to enjoy in the early twentieth century.
After his “Hiawatha,” Coleridge-Taylor’s most well known works are his 24 Negro Melodies; his Ballade in A minor; his Symphony in A major; African Dances for violin and orchestra; and a host of chamber music — his compositional output is substantial and varied. A review of the comprehensive works list compiled by famed scholar Dominique-René de Lerma reveals that Coleridge-Taylor also wrote at least 95 songs for solo voice and piano.
Because of his incredible success in a field dominated by white males at a time when racism in America was peaking, Coleridge-Taylor’s influence on African-American artists and intellectuals was powerful and far-reaching. For this reason, many consider Coleridge-Taylor to be the father of African-American art song. His legacy still leads and inspires the American musical community, just as he did a century ago.
I had an opportunity to sing for a very special audience on October
10, 2015. I had never been inside a prison facility before, and I
figured this a fitting Street Symphony experience, which could aid me
in my personal preparation for the Messiah Project. We, the Street
Symphony Chamber Singers, sang Durufle, Palestrina, Moses Hogan. But
the magic truly began when the inmates sang to US. First, I taught
them a little canon I wrote called “Umoja,” the first principle of
Kwanzaa meaning “unity.” We all sang it together, joining our voices
to voices of the incarcerated women. And when we had finish and they
had heartily thanked us, the women then asked if they could sing a
song for us. They harmonized and swayed in rhythm and sang fervently,
freely. In that moment, they gave us a most precious gift: their own
hearts through music. In sharing their music with us, they showed us
were all the same and that we all have the same power to use music as
a vehicle for building relationships. And I was humbled.
As an African American who went to CSULB, taking Black Studies classes while Dr. Maulana Karenga was still chair of the department, I have an ocean depth of respect for Dr. Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa. I have such respect for the precious principles that Kwanzaa embodies.
Some say you should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture, as this would violate the principle of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday. But I believe the integrity of this complex and sacred holiday is in perpetual jeopardy so long as individuals seek to prevent it from ever taking on the extraordinarily meaningful existence it could have if it were integrated into “the world.” I love Kwanzaa. On several occasions, I have performed two choral works I composed called “Umoja” and Kujichagulia” based on the principles of Kwanzaa (I’m planning to finish the set one day). I’ve loved these pieces, and so have the singers that sang them. Through these works, I believe singers and audience feel more personally connected to the spirit of the holiday, and therefore the holiday is more sincerely admired and cherished – this is important to me. Also, Kwanzaa principles are valuable to remember year-round, which makes Kwanzaa music potentially viable for year-round performances at concerts, festivals, sacred services, conferences, etc.
Through music, Kwanzaa could teach so much to our children and to our audiences in general. But Kwanzaa seems so stuck in an intellectual wasteland, guarded by a small number of folk who refuse to let it have a life of it’s own. Let it be integrated into the real world where Christmas and Hanukkah and other winter celebrations enrich many lives as they exist simultaneously. These holidays bring us closer together and make us appreciate each other more – who wouldn’t want that? Without cultural expressions of Kwanzaa through music and art, in conjunction with other winter celebrations, through performances and media that can reach into schools and churches and concert halls and homes, in my opinion this precious holiday remains impotent with its principles unappreciated and unknown.
This post was originally published on ChoralNet, the online bulletin board system for the American Choral Directors Association. Thanks to ACDA for their help in retrieving the post for this blog.