Ysaye Barnwell teaches power of unity through song at William and Mary

WILLIAMSBURG – The worldview that expresses one must master the ability to read music and execute it, or have an acute ear to be a fine musician was immaterial Friday and Saturday at the College of William and Mary School of Education.

“That doesn’t work in the black community,” Ysaye Barnwell said. “We learn orally. We document everything in our music, so the whole history is oral history. So what I wanted to do was just have people touch on various forms of music as they have evolved in black communities through the years.”

Barnwell’s Building a Vocal Community: The Power of Song in Community workshop transformed the Matoaka Woods Room into a music hall, classroom and place of healing.

Barnwell, a former member of Grammy-winning and longtime Washington, D.C.-based a cappella troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock, guided men and women of varying ages and races through the evolution of African-American music, from its African roots through the civil rights movement.

The 70-year-old breast cancer survivor, a native New Yorker, has led similar community sings for more than a quarter-century.

This is not a place for solos or small ensembles to shine.

Barnwell said, “(We’re) looking at music, chants, drumming – all of that in Africa and looking at the introduction of that body of songs we refer to as spirituals – what are they, what do they mean, where do they come from.

“And moving from the spirituals into hymns and then moving into gospel music. The reason I’m looking at these forms is because they are all congregational forms, where people come together and sing.”

Community outreach is paramount for Building a Vocal Community participant Jody Allen, who directs the Lemon Project. Named for a man once enslaved by the College of William and Mary, the project is a “multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the college through action or inaction,” according to William and Mary’s website. It seeks to scrutinize the 300-year relationship between African Americans and the college, and bring the campus and surrounding community together.

“There are a lot of people here that live in the community that still remember when they couldn’t come on campus,” Allen said. “So having events like this that embrace and welcome the community is very important. Hopefully, eventually, we can turn around the way some people think about the campus. You shouldn’t live in a college town and feel that you can’t take advantage of what the campus has to offer.”

For William and Mary professor Robert Trent Vinson, the workshop acted as a classroom for his history and Africana studies pupils that attended, along with his 14-year-old daughter, Tandi.

The songs are like historical texts.

“They are freedom songs,” Vinson said. “They speak to our deepest despair and our highest hope and the idea that one day we’ll be free; we’ll be redeemed. Over time, freedom and redemption take on different meaning, but the songs remain. Dr. Barnwell is one of the great keepers of that tradition, so I think that’s why many of us came here today.”

Jodi Fisler helped organize Barnwell’s first visit to William and Mary. It took about a year and a half of planning. The workshop was sponsored by All Together Williamsburg, the Lemon Project, William and Mary’s Africana Studies Program and Music Department, as well as Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg Community Foundation also provided funding.

The All Together credo is “bridging racial, ethnic and cultural lines.”

“I think one of the things that is amazing about this is that people who are participating engage with each other very readily in ways that you might feel awkward meeting people on the street or in other settings,” Fisler said, “but you’ve got this sort of shared experience of singing together, so when we had lunch, people were mixing at tables and talking to people they had never met before. And part of that is because of way the music helps break down those barriers.”

By the end of the workshop late Saturday afternoon, Barnwell and company worked their way up to civil rights sounds. They started with “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin'
Gonna build a brand new world

Mid-song, some of the workshop singers bellowed out replacements for “nobody,” like names of politicians or metaphorical words for obstacles.

“I think music is healing,” Barnwell said. “I think people don’t realize the intrinsic power we have until we come together and blend our voices. You realize, ‘I’m not here by myself.’ You’re breathing the same air with people who sort of feel just like you do. That’s empowering and you can take it outside of this room and let your voices be heard as a way of saying, ‘This is who we are,’ ‘This is intolerable,’ or ‘This is empowering.’ Whatever the circumstance is, collective voices can do that.”

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