Nova Scotia·Video

Decades-old black Nova Scotian music gets new life after remastering

Sankofa Songs, a remastered CD that showcases rare, archival black Nova Scotian music, was launched recently in Halifax. The songs are part of Helen Creighton's collection.

Helen Creighton first started recording traditional black music in 1943

Helen Creighton recorded Charles Owens and his family singing traditional songs in their home. (Helen Creighton Folklore Society)

Younger generations now have a chance to hear rare, archival black Nova Scotian music, some of which originates from the transatlantic slave trade and still connects historic black settlements across the province.

A remastered CD featuring music from the collection of folklorist Helen Creighton launched on Sunday. Titled Sankofa Songs, the word Sankofa is a West African word meaning to get back what was taken.

"This material is very often just sitting in an archives or a museum and the whole idea is to go back in, bring those voices back out and reintroduce them to the people who might have lost them and not only to African Nova Scotians, but to everybody," said Clary Croft, a Halifax folklorist and musician who has catalogued Creighton's archival collection.

In 1997, the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia and CBC co-produced a two-CD compilation titled Lord You Brought Me a Mighty Long Way: An African Nova Scotian Musical Journey.

Helen Creighton started recording traditional black Nova Scotian music in 1943. (Helen Creighton Folklore Society)

The first CD featured contemporary black Nova Scotian artists, while the second CD showcased traditional black spiritual music from Creighton's collection. Only the second CD has been remastered as part of the project.

Croft and Henry Bishop, a black-culture consultant and drummer, worked on both projects.

Bishop said he hopes the new CD will be distributed worldwide.

A recently released album of black Nova Scotian music has made rare recordings from a bygone era new again. 'Sankofa Songs' showcases remastered music from the Helen Creighton Collection. The famed folklorist started recording traditional black music in the 1940s, some of which originates in the transatlantic slave trade. 2:55

"What we're trying to do is show people, 'Look, here's Africa's, Nova Scotia's history ... and there's connections from all parts of the world where our ancestors came from,'" said Bishop.

He said the music connects people from black Nova Scotian communities such as North Preston and Cherry Brook with people from places such as the southern U.S., as well as those who speak Gullah, a Creole language.

Sankofa Songs is a remastered CD of black music recorded in Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Henry Bishop)

Creighton started collecting folk songs in 1928.

However, she first recorded black Nova Scotian traditional music in 1943 when she visited the home of William Riley in Cherry Brook and he passionately sang No More Auction Block For Me.

Bishop describes this song as a "deep-rooted southern anti-slavery song." When Riley performs it, Bishop said the emotion is very evident.

Dartmouth folklorist Helen Creighton recorded William Riley and his daughter Rose Man, of Cherry Brook, N.S., singing No More Auction Block For Me in 1943. (Helen Creighton Folklore Society)

"His generation, he was probably just one step away from the slave trade," said Bishop.

Slavery was common in Nova Scotia in the 18th century. For example, 400 of the 3,000 people living in Halifax in 1750 were slaves. Planters from New England who arrived in Nova Scotia between 1759 and 1765 also brought with them hundreds of slaves. Other black slaves came from the southern United States.

Creighton's search for traditional black music also took her to Inglewood, near Bridgetown, where she first met and recorded Charles Owens, who was about 100, and his family.

Henry Bishop is a black-culture consultant who worked on the project. (Henry Bishop/Facebook)

In 1967, Creighton obtained funding to hire Marvin Burke to visit contemporary singers and record their songs. Burke added to the collection by recording activist and champion boxer Delmore (Buddy) Daye and Murray Langford signing Do Lord, Oh Do Lord, and the New Road Settlement Community Club Singers from North Preston.

Most importantly, Croft said on March 26 of that year, the congregation at the Seaview United Baptist Church in Africville was recorded, which was being led by musical matriarch Lena West.

Rear view of Seaview African United Baptist Church, with Africville houses and laundry flapping in the breeze in the foreground. (Bob Brooks/Nova Scotia Archives)

On Easter of that year, another recording was made.

"What makes this so special is that we believe that these were the final recordings of a service in that church before it was bulldozed on Nov. 20, so these are living voices," said Croft.

"The church is gone. Most of the people that sang for Helen Creighton and for Marvin Burke are gone, but the voices live on."

The former City of Halifax demolished Africville in the 1960s and forced its residents out.

Copies of the CD can be purchased from the Helen Creighton Folklore Society website and can also be downloaded digitally.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca