Spirituals are the songs of slavery — here's why it matters who sings them

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale is teaching the meaning of spirituals and why it's vital to know the songs' history.

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale is teaching the meaning of spirituals and why it's vital to know the songs' history

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale came together with the Yale Alumni Chorus to teach them about what spirituals mean and why it's vital to know their history. 4:07

"Spirituals" are the moving songs that were created by African-American slaves to both lament the horrors of life as a slave and speak to personal and religious values that offer hope. When slavery ended, spirituals remained as testament to what happened during slavery's dark presence in America. They also have been sung by choirs ever since.

But does it matter who sings them? This was the question Toronto's Nathaniel Dett Chorale grappled with this summer. The Dett Chorale is made up of a diverse array of singers — many of them of people of colour — and they've been singing spirituals for a long time. Their director, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, is humbled by the power of the songs and well versed in their history.

(CBC Arts)

So when the predominantly-white Yale Alumni Chorus contacted Blyden-Taylor to learn more about the spirituals they had themselves been singing since the 1930s, the Nathaniel Dett director had to reflect on who carries on the tradition. And in this video, you'll see the results of the weekend the two choirs spent together. You'll see what it was like for them to sing spirituals as a combined ensemble, but their weekend also included much discussion, reflection and a deepening understanding of history that seems particularly relevant today.

See the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in "An Indigo Christmas...Parranda" at All Saints Kingsway Anglican Church in Toronto, December 13.

Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists online or on CBC Television. Tune in Friday nights at 12:30am (1am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm(4pm NT).

About the Author

Reza Dahya is known for his work as a host and producer of OTA Live on FLOW 93.5FM in Toronto. He transitioned into filmmaking with his first short film, ESHA (2011), and the crowd-funded FIVE DOLLARS (2013), which premiered at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, screened internationally and aired on CBC’s "Canadian Reflections". A 2014 alumnus of the Canadian Film Centre’s Cineplex Entertainment Film Program Directors’ Lab, Dahya completed his CFC Short Film, CHAMELEON in 2015, the independent short THE WORST PART in 2016 and is developing a slate of feature films.


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