When the Europeans started importing African slaves to the new world in North America, they took plenty of measures to ensure they remained passive. They made sure to split up families as much as possible, separate tribal members so slaves wouldn’t have a common language and did their best to deny them the use of anything that could be used as a drum. With the latter, they hoped to cut them off from any vestiges of culture, including religion they might have retained from their previous existence in Africa. By taking away all traces of identity, whether it be familial, tribal or cultural, they hoped to weaken any resolve they might have had for rebellion. As a final step, Europeans proceeded to convert them to Christianity in the hopes its promise of good behaviour being rewarded in the afterlife would keep them docile and compliant.
The one thing their new masters couldn’t take away from them though was their voices. Over the years, the slaves developed their own culture centred around vocal music. The majority of music that evolved in this period fell into one of two categories: work songs that were sung in the fields and gospel music. These gospel hymns and field songs served the dual purpose of educating and entertaining.
While this pattern was repeated pretty much throughout the slave owning areas of North America and the Caribbean, in some of the more isolated communities unique cultures arose. While all the vocal music retained elements of the slaves’ African heritage, in some areas, mainly where there was less contact with European society, more of the original culture was retained. The Georgia Sea Islands are a string of coastal islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States which stretch from South Carolina down to Florida. While the islands are today home to high end resorts, plantations used to dot these islands. The slaves who toiled there were isolated from both whites and Africans and developed their own distinct culture built around the Gullah language, a kind of mixture of Spanish, English and African dialects.
The Georgia Sea Island Singers was formed in the early 1900s by freed slaves and their descendants in an effort to preserve and educate people about their culture. However, they might not have received the attention and renown they have obtained if folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax hadn’t taken an interest in them in the 1930s. They have since gone on to perform for presidents of the United States, other world leaders and some of the best known concert stages in the world. Even though Lomax “discovered” the group in the 1930s, he didn’t make his first field recording of them until 1959-60. It’s these recordings that are the basis for a new release from Global Jukebox and Mississippi Records, Join The Band.
One of the first things you’ll notice is how the songs are almost completely a cappella, save for the occasional accompaniment provided by fife, guitar and banjo. While most of the songs on this recording are sung in English, musically you’ll notice quite a difference between them and what most of us associate with African American gospel. Like their ancestors were forced to do, they use vocal harmonies in lieu of drums on a number of tunes to mark the beat. It’s wonderful to hear how these voices are incorporated into the songs to suggest drums. You can tell they’re voices and they don’t do anything as obvious as sounding out a beat, but still manage to sound like a rhythm track.
The fife provides a high whistling counterpoint to the earthy quality of the lead vocals on the songs it’s utilized on. On the first tune I heard it, the third track of the disc “O Day”, it caught me completely by surprise as the song opened with just the fife. After two bars, the fife is joined first by hand claps, then the vocals and finally a guitar keeping the beat. Throughout the song, the fife continues to repeat the same sequence of notes over and over again until it becomes a part of the tune’s overall complex rhythm. The more you listen to the tune, the more you realize the complexity of its arrangement. There are three vocal lines not only singing different lyrics but doing so with their own unique beats while the hand claps, the guitar and the fife are providing three different layers of accompaniment.
This seems to be a hallmark of The Georgia Sea Island Singers. On the surface their material appears to be simple choral arrangements, but upon closer listening you hear more than was initially perceived. Listen to a song like track six, “Adam in the Garden”, and at first you’re paying attention to the male voice doing the lead vocals. But pretty soon you find yourself almost literally sinking into the tune. It’s as if you become more aware of what’s going on the more you listen. From the foot stomps marking out the basic beat, to the complex hand claps and the various vocal lines, each one takes on a life of its own that pulls you in. In some ways, these songs are the sum of their parts and more than the sum of their parts at the same time. It sounds a weird thing to say, but once you hear how each part is a distinct entity on its own and then how it fits in with the other components in the tune, you’ll understand.
While occasionally voices are out of balance, as if one group of singers was standing too close to the microphone, on the whole the sound is surprisingly clear. Considering this was a field recording made originally in 1959-60, it’s remarkable how so many elements can be heard in each song no matter how softly something is being played. Combined with the remarkable music created by the members of the choir, this recording becomes more than just another historical record. It’s a wonderful collection of music from one of the more distinct cultures in North America and a great introduction to a group who is still going strong today. The Georgia Sea Island Singers are not just a link to history, they are a living breathing example of a distinct culture.