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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

The Lafayette Concert Choir will perform Saturday, April 9, during a celebration of Paul Robeson’s autobiography Here I Stand, 4:30-6 p.m. in Interfaith Chapel, Hogg Hall (see conference schedule). The session will also feature a reader’s theater production of Here I Stand by actors Stephen McKinley Henderson, J.D. Hall, John Peak, and Ron Dortch and performances by a community dance ensemble and gospel choruses.

“I am very honored and extremely excited to be participating in the Paul Robeson conference,” says Concert Choir member Sandra Welch ’06, an English major from Philadelphia.

“Robeson was a remarkable individual, truly a trailblazer for all performers,” she says. “And it is a pleasure to pay tribute to him in the company of all the amazing speakers and performers scheduled to be present.”

The choir will perform a program of spirituals intended to educate the audience about the musical genre in addition to providing entertainment. Works include:

  • Laudamus (Bryn calfaria), Welsh hymn by Willam Owen, 1852, arranged by Daniel Protheroe, 1932
  • Every Time I Feel the Spirit, arranged by William Henry Smith, 1930s
  • Deep River, arranged by Roy Ringwald, 1948 (from the Fred Waring/Pennsylvanian tradition)
  • If I Got My Ticket, Can I Ride? arranged by Robert Shaw, 1949
  • Rock-a-mah Soul, arranged by Joseph Jennings, 1987
  • Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, arranged by Nina Gilbert, 1992
  • I Want to Be Ready, arranged by Moses Hogan, 2001

Nina Gilbert, director of choral activities, says her goals in creating the program were to present a cross-section of early and modern music and to highlight the character of the chorus, which this year includes many bass voices. As part of the program, Gilbert and the choir will demonstrate how spirituals are created via audience participation.

“The audience will help construct some verses for spirituals using the concept of wandering couplets, pairs of lines that usually rhyme and get transferred from one spiritual to another,” says Gilbert. “The chorus will sing lines the audience makes up and work them into the choral texture.”

The Welsh hymn “Laudamus” (“Bryn Calfaria”) is included in recognition of the famed concerts Robeson performed for Welsh coal miners. The chorus will sing the hymn in Welsh. Though the language is difficult to learn, Gilbert says, she and Lafayette choruses are accustomed to tackling such challenges. Gilbert specializes in creating multi-lingual performances. The choir has performed songs in 20 languages before American and international audiences during Gilbert’s five years as choral director.

Just as Robeson felt he could reach international audiences more deeply by singing to them in their own language, Gilbert sees music as a way of reaching people, both her students and the audiences.

“Language is a part of music. Music has a different sound in other languages,” she says. “I see music as literature. One learns it by singing.”

The Concert Choir routinely performs one or two spirituals in its program, but in preparation for the Robeson conference, Gilbert has focused the choral program on spirituals all year. In the fall semester’s concerts, 80 percent of the songs performed were spirituals.

The group sings unaccompanied, making the spirituals more authentic to their origins, Gilbert says. Instruments were either unavailable to the original singers of these African American folk songs because of expense or size or because they were not permitted. She points out slaves weren’t permitted to have drums because they could be used to signal slaves on neighboring plantations.

Gilbert sees a cultural component for the performance as well, noting Robeson’s celebrated success in reaching audiences around the world by singing their native folk songs.

“I see the Lafayette choir and Paul Robeson in the same tradition, keeping the same folk tradition alive,” she says. “And we want the audience members to feel they are part of the tradition of keeping spirituals alive. We want them to learn about spirituals so that they will understand and enjoy them more the next time they hear them.”

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