One of the hallmarks of a truly transcendental experience, I’d wager, is the inability to ascribe words that adequately describe it. To that end, I’ll give myself some grace for really being at a loss for expressing what an unforgettable and uplifting weekend the Barbershop Revival with the Carolinas District of the Barbershop Harmony Society was for HALO and the communities that participated.
We knew walking into it that this would be a fantastic weekend, by the mere fact that we would be contributing with almost intimidatingly legendary barbershoppers, including GQ, Crossroads, Debbie Cleveland, and The Fairfield Four. It was a little hard not to feel like a turtle on a shelf… how in the world did we get to be up here in this capacity with people beyond “Barberlebrity” status… musicians well known to the world outside of the Barbershop community?? And how many other people are going to be asking this question…?
The way out of this kind of self talk, of course, was remembering that the reason we were there was to see to the mission of these collaborating entities that barbershop be recognized by and reconnected to its roots in the heritage of African American musical traditions and engaging youth in engaging with it as the beautiful art form and gateway to community that it is. And to be surrounded for the first time in our journey in this community by so many young people who were like ourselves– not merely in appearance, but in all things that we share as a cultural identity, enabling the visceral connection that gives you the sense of being at home– was beyond affirming and precious for each of us.
Living in the light of Debbie Cleveland’s fantastic musicianship and teaching skills was quite the privilege. As fierce as she is inside and out, she is also fiercely warm. Her energy and warmth was thoroughly engaging for us and the students.
We got to also witness and experience the direction of Dr. Bill Adams from the Carolinas District, who lead the young men’s chorus as well as the combined ensemble. It’s always neat to see classically trained vocalists and musicians apply technique to barbershop singing and conducting. His leadership was also captivating and inspiring for the entire group.
One of the neat features of the weekend was the arrangement of master classes led by the men’s and the women’s quartets, sharing about our journeys through barbershop as well as our connections to its heritage and history. Jim Henry led a fantastic collaborative presentation between Crossroads and The Fairfield Four, demonstrating the idioms rooted in early gospel music and Western European applications of harmony that are reflected in the more contemporary style of barbershop singing– influenced by the complex trajectory of jazz and blues since the Reconstruction Era. Hearing and watching them sing together to conclude their presentation personally gave me the sense of how Heaven has been described… eternal bliss and glory in singing together.
The following day, we had the opportunity to expound further on the roots and history of Barbershop music. In this instance, we had the chance to share our perspective of the influences and evolution of this music and the implications of its appropriation in the Barbershop community for the sake of preservation of the style. We were able to discuss the difference in how music in the African American community evolved and morphed into different expressions, and that from a cultural perspective we are less inclined to consider those expressions inherently separate from one another. Further, there was the essence of our understanding how the music reflected musical traditions of West Africa which our ancestors were not allowed to practice in their original forms. There was once a time when having claimed to recognize the roots of barbershop as elements of those early traditions was not readily accepted. We were quite touched that not only was what we shared accepted– it was embraced and it was valued.
Later that same day, we had the privilege to share the masterclass setting with GQ. We shared our individual stories and backgrounds with the students, as well as our respective journeys as quartets. We were glad to get to show these wonderfully talented young people that music can be a part of their life and their success, whatever path they choose. It was funny to realize that GQ was forming at Towson around the same time that Portia and I were at Morgan State, soon to be followed by Jasmine. Just around the corner in Baltimore and only now crossing paths in an entirely different state. As we also shared about our work with Race and #RealTalk, the intersections of our perspectives and experiences made us feel even more connected. No wonder their singing is so resonant– they truly have open, loving, beautiful souls. We feel privileged to now call them friends.
As we got ready for the show, Dr. Adams invited us to witness something very special. This incredible young lady had something she wanted to share with all of us. She sat down to the piano and accompanied herself to a jazzy rendition of “Summertime” with a sweet and soulful alto croon. Then, to our astonishment and delight, she seamlessly transitioned to the very notes of the piano score to Porgy and Bess, opening this sparkling soprano voice to the melody from the opera. What a special and moving moment it was to have this lovely student share something with us in return– one representation of the amazing talent among the students who participated in this program.
The show was the icing on the cake of a wonderful weekend. The students came through performing the music beautifully– even though many of them hadn’t received it til shortly before the workshop, having only just learned of it. Even more beautiful was knowing that they so enjoyed making this music together that many of them intend to continue engaging with Barbershop– and may even work in partnership with HALO, Inc. in the future.
Whatever happens, once again Barbershop has shown its profound influence in building community and creating connections. And because of the warmth of the community we experienced in this event, we left revived– no longer plagued with clouds of doubt that we didn’t belong. Because even if we were turtles on a shelf, all we could feel was gratitude for having been placed there. And joy for witnessing such a beautiful view.