Thinking Out Loud

May 8, 2018

The Hymns We Sing Meant Something Different to American Slaves

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

Saturday night we attended the first in what is hoped to become an annual concert series, The Hymns to Freedom Project. The venue was the beautiful Toronto Centre for the Arts; although it was built in the late 1990s, we were seeing it for the first time. The tickets were purchased by our son who wanted to see the concert and invited us to join him.

He became aware of the event after attending a previous concert by the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). The connecting link is Corey Butler who is Musical Director and who conceived this program, composing and arranging the selections, and conducting a 38-piece orchestra.

The music was often bright and lively, and this stood in contrast to the subject matter: Slavery in the United States. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were played, including the famous “I have a dream” speech, with the film footage synchronized with the live orchestra.

Four of the selections involved Canadian soloist Jackie Richardson who combined readings with singing. The song “Elijah Rock” had the audience clapping and singing.

But the more sobering theme of the night was never far removed. There was a reference to the gospel song, “How I Got Over” and an explanation of its reference to fugitive slaves escaping to northern states by crossing the Ohio River; but also a reminder that it’s a metaphor for the wider emancipation of black Americans as whole, with the added caveat that this process is incomplete. The accompanying slide show included an images of Trayvon Martin and the more recent image of the black men removed from a Starbucks location just last month.

We were reminded that the “band of angels coming after me” in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was actually a reference to friends on the northern banks of the Ohio (identified as the Jordan River) often signalling when would not be safe to cross and then helping them when it was.

The concert was also the launch project for Zamar Music Productions, a new “not-for-profit organization committed to excellence in music art and performance” in three specific areas: Education, Entertainment and Production utilizing a variety of music styles. (Learn more at zamarmusic.org)

My only regret is that the entire program was quite short. We were told ahead of time that the running time would be 72 minutes.  It should also be noted that from where we were sitting, it looked like almost a quarter of the audience arrived late; strange considering the ticket prices. Also, there were two competing elements here; the songs featuring Ms. Richardson belonging to an entirely different genre than the more classical-styled, instrumental-only songs featuring the full orchestra. That may have been an attempt to appease a more diverse audience.

The next Hymns to Freedom Project concert is scheduled for February in Brampton, Ontario.


Footnotes:

  • My wife and I got to sing with the Toronto Mass Choir in a yearly event they do called Power Up and we continue to attend their concerts yearly. I’ve had several conversations with Corey Butler, including a front row seat in Newcastle where I could almost reach out and touch the piano. (You can read my story here.)
  • In another lifetime (for both of us) Jackie Richardson sang with a dance band that did Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, for which I was a roadie. Thanks to that experience, I’ve been inside almost every Synagogue in Toronto.
  • The Toronto Centre for the Arts is located in Toronto just steps away from where the April 23rd van attack took place. At the end of the event, Corey Butler dedicated the concert to the memory of those who lost their lives and to their families, and those who were injured. We went for a walk to the memorial after the concert and you can read that reflection here.
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