Workshop seeks to build community through song

There’s no singing experience required for this celebration of community voice, though an open mind — and mouth — is encouraged. Ysaye Barnwell’s “Building a Vocal Community: The Power of Song in Community” workshop returns to the College of William and Mary after a successful visit in 2017.

Barnwell, former member of ‘70s African-American a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, conducts workshops internationally, taking audiences on an historical journey through African oral traditions. Rhymes, chants and traditional songs from Africa and the Diaspora give way to the songs of modern African-American culture, like spirituals, ring shouts, hymns and gospels. These oral traditions play a crucial role in cultural ritual, as well as informing spiritual tradition.

Event organizer Jodi Fisler calls it an evolution, a way to trace through a complex social-political history and find commonality in a universal language.

“The normal barriers that people have fall away when you’re all singing together,” said Fisler. “It makes that community dynamic so much stronger.”

Barnwell has led workshops for 30 years, and she comes to William and Mary as Artist in Residence for the spring semester. Fisler says that after Barnwell’s first visit to the college last year, attendees told her that they had never been to an event that felt so affirming of their own cultural perspective.

“Intergenerational. Interfaith. Interracial. All these ways that people relate to one another,” said Fisler.

Though the structure of the workshop remains the same year to year, new participants mean the dynamic of the community sing is constantly changing. Collectively, the singers create a dialogue, replicating one that has been passed mouth-to-mouth in the way of oral tradition for centuries.

Beyond historic tradition rests our present day social context. “What makes [the workshop] so valuable now is that we have so much going on about racial relations,” said Fisler. “We’re trying to work through these things that have roots in our history.”

Through song, a group of disconnected individuals can find harmony. “There are people who go every year, who have been going every year for 25 years, for the same workshop,” said Fisler. “She’s ... engaging people in a way that isn’t just about the music, but community building itself.”

Building a Vocal Community takes place Jan. 25-26 at the School of Education, 301 Monticello Ave. $30 general admission; $10 for students. For more information and to register and buy tickets, visit

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