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Singing group combines musical history and historical spirituality

8/5/2009, 8:53 a.m.
(Tony Irving photo) Singing group combines musical history and historical spiritualitySusan Saccoccia ...

Singing group combines musical history and historical spirituality

The cadences, language and uplift of black spirituals have influenced every form of art in America and spread from the pulpits of preachers to the podiums of politicians.

Born of enslaved African Americans, black spirituals were the first original music of a new nation. Sustaining this music as a living oral tradition is the New England Spiritual Ensemble.

Founded in 1994, the Ensemble has been performing traditional African American spirituals and gospel music throughout the region for 15 years. This all-volunteer professional ensemble models itself after the 19th-century Fisk Jubilee Singers, who first brought the spirituals sung by African American slaves to the concert stage.

In 1871, the small troupe of classically trained students traveled from their financially struggling school in Nashville — founded to educate former slaves — to give concerts that eventually raised enough money to fund its transition into Fisk University. After their first grueling tour, the group catapulted to world fame in Boston the following year.

Performing at the 1872 World Peace Jubilee, the first major U.S. musical production open to black participants, they stood before 20,000 singers and a 2,000-piece orchestra and delivered a masterful rendering of the abolitionist anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” World tours followed, with stops at royal courts and other great halls.

The New England Spiritual Ensemble has also toured overseas, but this past weekend, its itinerary crossed the Charles rather than the Atlantic. On Sunday, Aug. 2, the Ensemble performed at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge. The day before, the New England Spiritual Ensemble Youth Chorus gave its debut concert at Deliverance Temple Church of God in Dorchester.

Ensemble member Allyssa Jones, co-chair of the music department of Boston Arts Academy, led the 15 students, who just completed the Ensemble’s first summer program for young people. In September, the Ensemble will begin a year-round version of the program, which serves students in the Boston Public Schools.

As they practice techniques of musicianship and study the repertoire, the students also learn about the sacrifices and achievements of those who first sang spirituals, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. One of the first official black units in the U.S. military, these former slaves fought with heroic valor in the Union Army during the Civil War.

“They were sent into a battle by commanders who knew that it was almost hopeless and endured high casualties,” said Jones.

The young people also discover resources to strengthen their own lives.

“Spirituals are our tonic and lifeblood,” said Jones. “Our primary purpose with this program is not to just have lovely children singing lovely songs. The urgency of this project is about providing space for students to build community and recognize their possibilities.”

The students take the Black Heritage Trail from its start at the Massachusetts 54th Regiment memorial across from the State House to its last stop, the African Meeting House on Joy Street. Built in 1806, the structure is the oldest known black church in the U.S.