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‘Songs of Free Men’ — reimagined spirituals debut at African Meeting House

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
‘Songs of Free Men’ — reimagined spirituals debut at African Meeting House
Gavin Rushing and Danny Rivera. PHOTO: ANNIELLY CARMARGO

A trio of talented musicians with Boston and Berklee College of Music roots bring a reimagined arrangement of African American spirituals to the African Meeting House on Dec. 1. Danny Rivera, Gavin Rushing and Matt Savage created the concert “Songs of Free Men” to celebrate the rich history of Black music and to unite everyone still searching for freedom.

Rivera and Rushing began working together on spirituals in 2020, when they created and filmed a new arrangement of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” in response to the murder of George Floyd. That piece garnered more than 70,000 views on YouTube and inspired the duo to reimagine other spirituals as well. The new arrangements use influences from a variety of genres, all of which have roots in spirituals. The “Songs of Free Men” program will also include a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We arranged them based off our experience in the Black church, based off our experience as performers, but also our connection to the music based off of who we are and where we came from,” says Rushing. “There are jazz influences, R&B influences, gospel influences, Black American music. Everything that has influenced us has been put into this music to bring a newer twist and a newer flavor.”

Spirituals have a rich history, but Rivera emphasizes that Black Americans, and many others, are still not yet free. These themes and emotions relate to present-day challenges and are intended to spur rumination about the future of American society as well.

Produced in collaboration with the Museum of African American History and the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, the concert will debut at the First African Meeting House in Beacon Hill. The group is also organizing a tour of the concert with projected performances in New York, Washington, D.C., and Georgia in 2023.

Launching the concert in Boston’s African Meeting House, the oldest Black church still standing in the United States, brings an important spiritual gravity to the performance. The concert is not about religious ideology, but performing it in the space where so many abolitionists and Black leaders worked, performed and prayed throughout history connects the performers deeply to their ancestors.

The Dec. 1 concert is free and open to the public, though seat reservations must be made in advance. Audiences can follow the progress of the tour on Rivera’s Instagram, @dannyrivera_.

Rivera hopes that the concert is an opportunity to bring all people struggling under oppression together.

“There are certain stories that are rooted in faith but actually bring in collective entry points for any and everyone who is looking for liberation,” says Rivera. “What I hope is that through this music, people can find freedom inwardly, people can find opportunity and reason to connect regardless of age, gender, creed, belief or race.”

African American spirituals, African Meeting House, arts, music
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