I grew up singing in choirs and I consider my choir experience an intrinsic part of my formation into the human that I am today. What first attracted me to be part of a choir was the social aspect, but what I got was so much more. I am sure many of you can relate.
As I reflect on my own choir experience growing up and how I interacted with the music then, I realized there were so many missed opportunities to learn more in-depth about the music we were singing. Lack of time to go beyond the score was always and still is, our biggest challenge. But, music takes a whole different meaning after a traumatic event like the one we are experiencing.
As a result of the current civil rights movement, many of us have started to talk about how we are going to approach planning and teaching for our programs from now on. We are all developing an acute awareness of the music we present to our students and a deep desire to allow more equitable opportunities to sing underrepresented composers and styles.
I am approaching my summer planning differently this year. I’m going to consult my colleagues, visit primary sources to research the background of the pieces, and reflect on my own personal experiences and practices.
As an Afro-Latina that grew up in the Dominican Republic, almost all of the music we sang was traditional Wester and Latin-American choral repertoire. I know we sang some spirituals because I remember struggling with the English pronunciation and loving the energy that singing this music brought to the group but I don’t remember any piece in particular. That tells you how superficial we were in our study of the music and how little attention we paid about learning the background of the piece. There was that issue of not having enough time again.
Since I can only speak from my Afro-Latina reality, I would like to share some pieces that speak of the Afro-Latinx experience and some resources that I am using to select music to represent the African-American community.
One of the choral pieces that brings me a warm memory is the lullaby “Duerme Negrito.” This lullaby was documented by the Argentinian Atahualpa Yupanqui during his travels through Latin-America. This particular lullaby is believed to have its origins in the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The story is told from the perspective of a caregiver while the mom is working in the fields. In this context, “Negrito” is used as a term of endearment and the caregiver, probably an older sibling, is telling the baby that if he goes to sleep mom is going to bring yummy things; but is also teaching the baby how the white man, the master, is to be feared. I encourage you to look Emilio Sole arrangement for SSAA also available in SSATB.
I also remember singing the well-known piece “Nigra Sum” by the Catalán Pablo Casals. After moving to the Caribbean during the Spanish civil war, Casals continued to create music that represented his environment. “Nigra Sum” is written in Latin and inspired by biblical text.
I am black but comely,
o ye daughters of Jerusalem.
Therefore the King chose me
and brought me into his chambers
and said to me
“rise up and come, my friend.
For lo, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of renewal is come.”
This text explores looking at the person’s black skin color as part of their identity with acceptance and their worthiness in the eyes of God.
Another piece that touches the African identity in the Latino community is the traditional Mexican mariachi song “El Son de la Negra.” Once more, the term “negra” here is used as a term of endearment. I will always remember my parents calling each other lovingly “negra” and “negro.” Granted my parents were a mixed-race couple, but that is a story for another time.
“El Son de la Negra” is so popular in the Mexican culture that it is often considered to be the “second national anthem.” The only arrangement that I can find, published in the US, is by José Hernandez for Hal Leonard for the mariachi band with a vocal part. But I LOVE this choral version that I found on youtube. I would love to buy their score.
To teach African-American music these are the resources that I plan on using along with a different approach when teaching it. I asked my colleagues what they were thinking about doing when we go back to school and some of the ideas were to dedicate an entire concert to the music of African-American composers. Preferably not during February. Another idea is, having the students do research about the pieces and write the program notes.
The places that I visit when looking for music selections are The Spiritual Project and recently Dr. Marques L. A. Garrett created this very comprehensive list of non-idiomatic choral music of African American composers.
I encourage my students to go to primary sources for their research so they will be starting here African American Song. I teach K-5, thus this is an excellent site for them.
For inspiration, I’ve been listening to We Are Americans, Praise the Lord, I Ain't Got Nobody by words by Roger Graham and music by Spencer Williams, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, Nigra Sum Sed Formosa by Jonathan Woody and this spoken word Me Gritaron Negra by the Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, and activist Victoria Santa Cruz.