Jubilee Voices celebrates African American experience through song

In the African American community, music has always been more than a form of entertainment, it’s been an important communication tool.

Often passed down through generations, it has been used to tell stories, to recount history and to even heed warnings. It is that deep, rich complexity of music connected to the African American experience that led to the formation of the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices in 2010.

Jubilee Voices will share music and stories with the audience at two shows Saturday at New Spire Arts in downtown Frederick. The show is the first the nonprofit organization has hosted since it went through a significant shakeup last year.

The Ausherman Family Foundation formed New Spire Arts in 2016 with a mission to bring a performing arts studio and theater space to downtown Frederick. However the organization’s mission abruptly changed last year when board members canceled spring classes shortly before they were set to begin and eliminated staff members, leaving the future uncertain. In September, the board announced the hiring of a new director, Gerard Gibbs, who has planned out a new season of shows beginning with the Jubilee Voices show this weekend.

Andrea Blackford, the founder and leader of Washington Revels Jubilee Voices, said Jubilee Revels was formed after the Washington Revels received a grant for musical performances in preparation for the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2011.

The Washington Revels, which has been based in Washington, D.C., for more than 35 years, is “dedicated to reviving, sustaining, expanding, and celebrating cultural traditions — in music, dance, storytelling, and drama — that bind people together in spirit and joy,” according to its website.

Jubilee Voices took that mission a step further.

“One of the ideas was to begin a group that was centered around African American music, to explore that aspect of music, culture, friends, slaves and free people of color during that era,” Blackford said recently during a telephone interview.

The Washington Revels, she said, is “an organization that embraces and promotes community tradition, and preserves preservation of those traditions.”

Therefore, she said, Jubilee Voices’ mission fits well, “because what we’re trying to do is preserve the music that people don’t hear anymore. With the evolution of gospel, a lot of these songs were taken and changed. One thing we like to do is show how the songs have progressed and changed.”

Today the group is made up of about 14 members who live in the Baltimore-Washington Metro Area. The group practices in Silver Spring.

Even before Jubilee Voices formed, Blackford said the Washington Revels had done “some groundbreaking work that led up to Jubilee Voices.”

In 1998, the Washington Revels did a Christmas Revel show that focused on the alley communities of Washington, D.C. In the 1850s and following the end of the Civil War, Washington was overwhelmed with an influx of population. To handle the poorer residents, the District built communities in its alleyways. By the end of the 19th century, most of the alleyway residents were black.

That show wasn’t the first time the Washington Revels explored African American history, Blackford said, but it was the first time they had delved deeply into the urban aspect of it.

In 2006, the Revels followed up again with an Early American Christmas Revel show, she said, “that was set in a variety of areas and featured some African American culture and music.”

Even before Jubilee Voices were set to officially launch, Blackford said the ensemble had three gigs already scheduled.

“The outpouring of love, support and need of this kind of work was shocking,” she said.

The music
Music performed by Jubilee Voices comes from several sources. Blackford referenced a book called “Slave Songs of the United States.” Published in 1867, the book contains music that was collected by three Abolitionists and is considered the first-known compilation of African spirituals.

Blackford said looking at the book, “you can see some of the precursors to some of the spirituals we know and love today. It is fascinating.”

Jubilee Voices also used the archives of the Library of Congress and members’ personal histories for musical material.

“Most of us are over 40 in this group, and we learned some of these songs at our grandparents’ knees,” she said.

With arrangements so deeply seeped in history, Jubilee Voices members stay true to how the music was originally performed.

“The thing that makes Jubilee Voices distinct is that we learn spirituals and songs and sing them the way our ancestors did,” she said. “We listen to each other. We may use a piece of music here and there, but it’s focused solely on our interpretation, what we bring to it and our improvisation.”

The performance in Frederick, Blackford said, will focus on black history, keep with the ensemble’s mission, and touch on local history.

“We want to take them [the audience] on a musical journey that gives them stories and music that they may not have heard, things that they may not have learned. We want to take it sort of a step further,” she said. “What we do, it’s very personal. It’s not overly heavy. It can be a lot of fun. We want them to know the journey and sing the story along with us.”

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