“Squeee!” is the sound I made back in the summer when our artistic director Jennifer Rodgers said we’d do spirituals and traditional songs for our March concert. First a quick reminder about that. In Rodgers’ words:
Music is at the very heart of the world’s deepest traditional communities because it speaks directly to our spirits. Each tradition that we will explore in ‘Til The Spirit Moves has its own unique sound and message. They are centuries old in many cases, and are now steeped in meaning and in their communities. This is moving, powerful, evocative music.
Few would argue that music has the capacity to transcend barriers of culture and language. Audiences everywhere get melody, even if we have no idea what the words mean. And everyone gets rhythm. Even folks with two left feet get the beat.*
But there is something universal about the pieces that we hold dearest around the world. There is something human and transcendent about them. And sometimes, even without any context, the connection is instant. It certainly was for me. There is no other other reason why I fell in love with the Blues and Gospel as a teen in New Delhi.
I grew up in a highly musical family—to wit, my name. I grew up on a well-curated staple of Karnatic, Hindustani, and Western classical music. And yes, beloved Bollywood. None of the aforementioned, however, gave me any context for the random Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge tapes I found lying in a neighborhood store.
It made not one bit of difference.
They were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. And to this day I have no idea why the Blues and Gospel and Spirituals I discovered, spoke to me as immediately as they did. But they did. Directly, immediately, and forever. Now I look back and I see why. It’s because the music could be simultaneously easy and intricate, slow but rhythmic, seemingly complex and yet incredibly simple when you took apart and discovered the layers of voices, and improvisation. And always, there was a firm proscribed time signature within which the unruly music filled the box. Boldly, entirely, sometimes shamelessly.
In other words the simplicity of a Shaker “Simple Gifts” or a Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Water, Sylvie” was exactly like every folk song my grandfather sang to me in a quiet room. The richness of Etta James’ voice was on a par with every Kishori Amonkar rendition I’d been enticed or expected to sit through and unconsciously absorbed. The complexity of an “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel” was in every symphony I’d nodded to while plowing through yet more homework. I knew none of the stories or traditions behind many of the songs I listened to, on repeat—taking care to be careful with the needle on the record player I was finally allowed to handle. And yet I connected to all of it in one opening bar.
I say all that to say this—there is something truly powerful about traditional music that has lived with us for a long time and been burnished with every generation. You can know nothing about them and still know that you are hearing something from the oldest collective human experiences—joy, sorrow, survival, triumph, community, story telling, and beauty. And when you do know about them, you are doubly fortunate in a way words cannot possibly describe, but the music always speaks to.
This is what we offer in three weeks. Please join us.
Tickets to ‘Til The Spirit Moves: Traditional Songs And Spirituals (7:30 pm, Saturday, March 12, 2016) are now available through choir members or online at https://vcs-spirit-2016.eventbrite.com Prices are $25/Adults, $20/Seniors(65+) and Students (15- 18). Youth 14 and younger attend for free if accompanied by a paying patron.
* We just chair dance out of respect for our fellow audience members whose minds we wish not to traumatize and toes we want to leave unbruised.