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Singing to the sky

Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell teaches African song

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Singing to the sky
Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell photo: courtesy gardner museum

On Thursday, May 24, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hosted Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell for “Community Sings: Singing in the African American Tradition.” Part of the RISE Music Series, the free event allowed community members to join Barnwell in singing songs from the African tradition, beginning with West African chants and moving chronologically through gospel.

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For more information about Barnwell’s work, visit:

Barnwell, who sang with Sweet Honey in the Rock for 34 years, offers an impressive resume. After studying violin for 15 years, she went on to earn her Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Speech Pathology, Doctor of Philosophy in Speech Pathology and Master of Science in Public Health.

This blend of art and intellectualism reveals itself in Barnwell’s teaching style. She began her “Community Sings” program with an open discussion about the purpose of music in the African tradition versus the purpose of music in the Eurocentric tradition. She explained that while music was for recreation and ceremony in the Eurocentric canon, in African history it retains a more quantifiable function.

“One of the main reasons for music is to illustrate who we are,” she said. “All of that music kept us African people from falling off the face of the earth.” Barnwell continued to point out these differences during the evening. This discussion component was an important addition to the performance. In the Gardner Museum, primarily stocked with white artists, pulling away from the Eurocentric tradition is crucial.

This discussion extends to technique as well as purpose. “In an African meter there are many things going on,” said Barnwell. “The singers might be singing in 4 and the drummers are drumming in 6/8. You yourself can shift from 6 to 4, it’s just another way to experience the song.”

In the vertical Calderwood Hall space, and organized by musical range, the sound of voices coming together soared through the theater and toward the sky. The result was a powerful coming-together of a disparate group of people and backgrounds, bound into one through song.

The RISE Music Series brings live, contemporary music to the Gardner in a spectrum of genres. Curated by Shea Rose and Simone Scazzocchio, the RISE series has previously featured many other artists of color, including bassist Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Alice Smith.

The series will resume in the fall. In the meantime, Barnwell encourages art lovers to attend her monthly Community Sings in Washington, D.C. “Through singing, we’re constantly having conversations about the group of people who were enslaved,” she said. “We need to pay attention.”

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