Choirs in Southwest Ohio pay tribute to Dr. Ysaye Barnwell
This week, Choirs in Southwest Ohio that sing for social justice will come together to celebrate Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. Barnwell was one of the early members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the longtime African American women’s acapella group. For decades, Barnwell has composed works for choirs and dancers. Now her life is changing. Community Voices producer David Seitz tells the story.
Ysaye Barnwell knows the power of song to move people to action. Sweet Honey in the Rock led protesters in songs against apartheid outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C. “We would go and stand with other people, and we would sing,” Barnwell recalls. “And the messengers were the ones who knocked on the door, and then gave the message if anybody answered and would then be arrested because we had crossed the line. I was arrested for singing a song. Those moments are deeply impressed on my soul.”
Barnwell’s father was a classically trained violin teacher who taught Ysaye. Her mother was a nurse. Barnwell’s mother was told by a spiritual reader that Ysaye would become a singer. But Ysaye chose to study speech therapy. In college, she heard the songs of the Freedom Singers. This was the civil rights era, and she heard the news of the time. Barnwell says, “Until I heard them singing about bodies in the Mississippi River, I hadn’t really known that Black people had disappeared. I’m a freshman in college, a sophomore in college, and the music is teaching me what’s going on. They didn’t publish this stuff in the newspapers in New York.”
Ten years later, Barnwell joined Sweet Honey in the Rock, rooting their melodies with her bass rhythms. Each member wrote songs for the group. Barnwell’s songs were especially loved by choral and dance groups who commission her to compose for them. Melanie DeMore is a vocal activist and longtime friend of Barnwell. She says that Barnwell’s music, like the song, Wanting Memories are “new spirituals.”
To DeMore, “a spiritual is something that feeds you in a three-dimensional way, on your spirit, that energizes your body and clears your mind. So songs like (sings) “I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me…” That song reaches into people on more than just one level. So there’s the sorrow in it, but it turns into a total jubilee by the end. That whole idea of balance, and that’s one of the things that’s so great about Ysaye’s music, it has that balance.”
Now, Barnwell is losing her memory. Cathy Roma, director of the World House Choir, has worked with Barnwell for decades. Last year, the two of them sat in Barnwell’s home, listening to her compositions. Roma recalls that day. “ She was in wonderment and incredulous that she had written this. And that there were people who were performing it. When I say, “Ysaye, we have transcribed one hundred and two of your works, she has no comprehension. But when she’s hearing it, she can remember.”
It was then Roma knew the gift that she wanted to give her mentor and close friend. She reached out to seven choir groups in Cincinnati and beyond to sing Ysaye’s music for this tribute concert. One of those choirs, is Kuji, a men’s prison choir in Marion, Ohio directed by Roma. For the last two years during COVID, Marion prison was in lockdown. If the men reported they had COVID, they were put in extreme isolation. “They wouldn’t want to be diagnosed,” says Roma. “They would suffer, and they would sweat, and you know they would need their sheets changed, and they needed tea, hot tea brought to them. So men started taking care of each other.
When the men told Roma their stories, she brought them Barnwell’s song, Would You Harbor Me? The Song conjures up the slavery and abolition era, but it also suggests the perils all immigrants and refugees may face. The song spoke to the men’s COVID experiences. Roma recalls these lyrics in the song: “Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic, convict, or spy? Are we able to harbor one another? Would I harbor you?”
Ysaye’s friends are now caring for her. Everyone who sings her music says it gets inside of them and offers healing. With each new group that finds themselves in her songs, the music is renewed once more.
To livestream the concert on Saturday, February 27 starting at 3:15 p.m., go to the website and click on the livestream link.
Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.
Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.