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Repertoire Built Around Spirituals : Choir Sings to Preserve Music of Black Slaves

April 20, 1989|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

When it opened its new University Theatre in 1978, Cal State Dominguez Hills put together a series of performances to show it off.

"I put out a call for people who wanted to put a choir together to do some spirituals and that sort of thing," said Hansonia Caldwell, who was then a music teacher interested in preserving the music of suffering and hope that originated with black American slaves. "The group attracted so much attention that we decided to stay together."

The singers called themselves the Dominguez Hills Jubilee Choir and they have been performing ever since at the university and throughout Los Angeles County, often in churches, on college campuses and at the Los Angeles County Christmas Eve concert televised from the Music Center. The choir is a regular course offering open to interested singers on either a credit or non-credit basis.

Money for Scholarships

Its annual benefit concert was given Sunday on the Carson campus. The event raises money for two scholarships for music students, and to help finance a free music and arts camp that choir members run at the university every summer for high school students. The 80 youngsters who attend the camp work for a week with visiting artists and put on a musical about someone important to black culture.

"This is a real town-and-gown ensemble," said Caldwell, who directs the choir in addition to serving as dean of the School of Humanities and Fine Arts. "It is made up of students, university faculty, staff and alumni. The people come together out of interest in our repertoire."

The repertoire, says Caldwell, is built around spirituals that came out of slave days and gospel songs that Caldwell said became the music of the free black church after the Civil War.

More than 100 years ago, this music was popularized by the Jubilee Choir of Fisk University in Nashville. The group toured Europe and sang for Britain's Queen Victoria.

"This is a rich repertoire because there are at least 10,000 spiritual melodies in existence," Caldwell said, adding that her choir is patterned after the Fisk original. "The music is other-worldly, introspective, and rhythmically alive." Originally, spirituals were sung without accompaniment, Caldwell said, but after the transition to gospel music, instruments were added.

Minimal Accompaniment

The Dominguez Hills choir performs most of its music a cappella, but it sometimes uses piano and organ. The "Gospel Mass"--a gospel setting of the traditional liturgy that was on the program Sunday--includes a synthesizer.

Despite its spiritual roots, the choir has delved into contemporary music by black composers as well as jazz and rhythm and blues. Programs saluting Duke Ellington and George Gershwin have been performed.

"People in the choir really do have a genuine concern about the preservation of the music of the African-American heritage," Caldwell said. Despite its focus on black music, she said, the group is deliberately composed of people of different ethnic groups and ages.

Margaret Strickland, a teacher's aide who lives in Carson, has sung with the choir six years. "I get a real good feeling with gospel and spiritual music," she said. "I grew up in Oklahoma hearing this kind of music."

'Music Peps You Up'

Even though she may be tired on those Monday evenings when the choir rehearses, she says the feeling does not last long. "The music peps you up," she said. "You get down into the music, and just the feeling of it gives you a workout."

Strickland, who is white, said that while the music has black origins, it fits everyone. "It's about striving for rights, for the right to do things, and that's not just for the black culture," she said.

Caldwell said the energy and good feelings that come from gospel music are not limited to the singers on stage. People in the audience clap their hands and move, and some join in the singing.

"Spirituals are not done that much," she said. "We get a lot of people who remember singing them in the South and recognize this as music of their past and sing along."

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