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Sounds of freedom that fuel the musical endeavor

By Marina Hayman ’09 M.A.R.

A panel on music and the “sounds of freedom” that fuel a musician’s work was the concluding session at the April 3-5 Middle Passage Conversations conference.  Panelists included a variety of theorists and practitioners—a jazz flutist, a saxophonist, an ethnomusicologist, a singer, a writer of hymns, and a musician-composer-arranger.  Among the inspirations cited:  “unintelligible sounds of human voice” and “the sounds of nature.”

Theodore Burgh“I was struggling with the word freedom... understanding what freedom meant in light of being black and reared in the South decades ago,” said Theodore Burgh, a jazz flutist and assistant professor of philosophy and religion and anthropology and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.  He cited as an inspiration for his work  “unintelligible sounds of the human voice—humming—the sounds of nature—rain.”

Saxophonist Dwight Andrews, associate professor of music theory and African American music at Emory University, held up “the power of organized sound... the power of music to transform the situation.  It’s the power of the divine.”  Andrews said he regrets that, for the younger generation, much of that power seems to be lost as churches stray from singing the spirituals and old hymns.

Evelyn Harris, a singer and member of the award-winning group Sweet Honey in the Rock, began by saying, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell you what fuels my voice.”  But then she proceeded to talk about her 33-year heroin addiction.  “God sent me an angel,” she said, “a woman I’d met at a music festival in August 2002.”  That woman helped her kick the habit, and she has now been drug-free for the past five and one-half years, Harris told the audience.

William B. McClain, the Joyce Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, spoke about music in the context of African slaves and their descendants.  “Lord, how come we here?” was their question, he said.  “They answered with song, and they answered with sermon.”   In the 21st century, the contemporary Black church must continue the tradition of prophetic preaching, said McClain, “to speak truth to power…. that is our mission…how come we’re here.”

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