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Ysaye Barnwell to lead Building a Vocal Community workshop in Williamsburg


Building a Vocal Community, a workshop coming to Williamsburg in January, is an experience not easily captured in words.

As participants learn songs in the oral tradition from Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, a former member of African American female a cappella group Sweet Honey in The Rock, something happens.

Barnwell sings, the room follows, and "very quickly, you've got all these people singing this incredible harmony that you didn't know five minutes ago," described Jodi Fisler, a two-time participant in the workshop.

The experience taps into music's near unmatched ability to create instant, indescribable community, and in this workshop, it's an experience created specifically through African American music.

Barnwell's background includes time spent as composer, arranger, author, actress and professor, and she's led the Building a Vocal Community workshop for nearly 30 years across three continents, according to her website.

"My goal is to help people to understand the evolution of African American music, from Africa to the present," she said. "And one of the ways that I look at it is through the vehicle of worldview."

Take "Kumbaya," for example.

Barnwell said Kumbaya originates from the Gullah language, a combination of African and West African languages and English, spoken on the Georgia Sea Islands.

"It means, 'Come by here, Lord.' And that is an invocation. So it's never sung like 'Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya,'" Barnwell explained, singing a line from the familiar, peaceful tune. "It's much more intense than that, because whatever the situation is that's making you sing it, that's intense, and you don't have a solution for it."

And that's just one song.

"When people understand the music, understand the language of the music and the history of the music, they give it a different kind of response," Barnwell said. "So part of it is learning about the history and the worldview."

The other part, Barnwell said, is the musical journey: from rhythms, chants and traditional African songs to slave spirituals to songs from the Civil Rights Movement to hymns, gospels, blues, jazz, rock and roll.

"I want people to understand that journey, and we sort of sing our way through it," she said.

The singing, the learning, is done in the oral tradition.

"People will not be required to read music. They won't be given any music. They will hear it from my mouth, and then they'll do it," Barnwell said. "And they always do."

After attending the workshop at Omega Institute in New York, Fisler hoped to bring the experience to Williamsburg. So in 2015, she began building the team to make that hope a reality.

The workshop is sponsored by All Together, the College of William and Mary's Lemon Project, Africana Studies Program and Music Department, as well as Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg Community Foundation also provided funding for the workshop, which will occur Jan. 27 and 28.

"People I think begin to have a different understanding of rhythm, and just a different understanding in general, if they've not experienced this before," Barnwell said. "A different understanding of the cultures that the music came from, the purpose of the music, the fact that African and African American music always means something."

Jody Allen, managing director of The Lemon Project, thought the workshop fit well with the project, which addresses the 300-year relationship between African Americans and the college.

She sees the workshop as an enjoyable way to spark needed conversation.

"Sometimes we need to have difficult discussions, but they're often difficult to have, and one way to do that is to set up an environment that is warm and welcoming but also conducive to discussion about race and about culture and civility," Allen said. "(The workshop) seems like a good way to set the right kind of environment that will lead to open, honest discussion."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Building a Vocal Community

When: 6-9 p.m., Jan. 27 and 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Jan. 28, 2017

Where: Williamsburg and Mary School of Education, 301 Monticello Ave.

Workshop is $50 general admission, $15 for students. Admission is limited. To register, visit For more information, visit

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