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Audiences Everywhere Get a Rise Out of Spirituals : Folk music: A repertory group from the world-traveled Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers will bring its rousing rhythms to Anaheim.

August 14, 1993|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In nearly 30 years of globe-trotting, the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers have rarely delivered rousing American folk spirituals to audiences that didn't rise to their feet in appreciation, says longtime member Virginia White.

"We've sung in Israel," White said, "where they don't cotton too much to Jesus and Lord, but they accept our music.

"And we sang in Egypt . . . where they started stamping and ululating and we thought they were going to come after us because we were a foreign group, but they absolutely loved us."

Tonight, Orange County audiences can judge for themselves when a nine-person repertory group of the 30-plus-strong troupe comes to Ball Junior High School in Anaheim. The concert is part of the Living Tradition monthly folk music series.

Jubilee music first rang out in celebration of "The Year of the Jubilee," 1865, when a Constitutional amendment based on the Emancipation Proclamation, issued to end slavery, became law.

The Jubilee Singers group of Los Angeles was founded by former UC Davis music professor Albert McNeil in 1964. McNeil, an ethnomusicologist, created his troupe when he was a church choir director in L.A., and he continues as its director. The group performs African folk songs, African-American gospel music and jazz and show tunes by Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

But classic spirituals, strongly rhythmic songs based on biblical stories and sung a cappella, are the heart and soul of what they do and will dominate the Anaheim show.

These songs have their roots in African music, said White, who has sung with the troupe for 28 years and will provide historical narration Saturday.

"Africans celebrate everything with music," she said in a recent phone interview, "so when they came (to the United States) as slaves, their music made them one, even though they were from different tribes.

"When they started to adopt the ways of the Anglo church, they did it in song. Sometimes they'd like the melodies they heard (in church), so they'd keep the melody and change the words, or, more than likely, they would change the beat."

Spirituals also evolved from "field hollers," melodies created by slaves laboring on plantations, White said. "They might call to their loved ones or owners, who would hear the melody line and know who was calling."

Some such tunes were later translated into "street cries," prevalent in the early 1900s and beyond. White remembers hearing the street cry of a watermelon peddler while visiting her grandfather in Chicago in the 1950s.

He would drive his truck through alleys between apartments singing "watermelon, get your watermelon here!" and "people would lean over their fences to buy from him," she said.

The first band of Jubilee singers was made up of 11 members from Tennessee who sang for England's Queen Victoria in 1867, White said.

"She was so moved by the songs that she had the court artist paint a life-size mural of them, which today stands in Windsor Castle--if it didn't burn" in the recent fire there, she said.

Living Tradition organizer Carolyn Russell said the Jubilee group's engagement represents an ongoing effort to broaden the concert series, which is produced by the Occasional String Band and has focused on string bands and other instrumental ensembles.

"We've never tried choral music before, and we haven't done much black music," Russell said. "I am looking to expand our parameters, and we've recently tried a number of things that have been unusual for us" such as Slovenian polka music and Canadian fiddling.

If experience is any indication, the Jubilee Singers group, which has visited roughly 60 countries, will be a hit. White attributes the troupe's broad appeal largely to its singers' heartfelt renderings and its songs' uplifting lyrics and energetic rhythms.

"People dance in the aisles," she said.

* The Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers Repertory Group will perform tonight at 8 at the Ball Junior High School cafeteria, 1500 Ball Road, Anaheim. $9; free for children accompanied by an adult. (714) 638-1466 or (818) 794-0070.

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