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Fisk Jubilee Singers director led toward ‘new millennium’

Paul Kwami on the campus of Fisk University. Screen capture from WSMV.com

NASHVILLE – Paul Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers were part of an unusual cohort of Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductees in 2000.

Among the eight new members: The Oak Ridge Boys; southern gospel’s The Kingsmen; and rock gospel’s Petra.

And there was Roger Breland, leader of the contemporary Christian group TRUTH and now executive director of the Alabama School of the Arts at the University of Mobile.

Kwami, who died Sept. 10 at age 70, and Breland never had a chance to meet at the Oct. 30, 2000, event.

It’s a lingering regret for Breland, but not one that clouds his admiration for Kwami, a native of Ghana who led the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1994 until his death at a Nashville hospital after an undisclosed illness.

“The opportunities that the Fisk Jubilee Singers provided for so many students – their experiences of singing, traveling, recording and sharing platforms with renowned musicians and speakers – are unimaginable,” Breland said of the ensemble that has carried its repertoire of spirituals to a global audience.

“As a Fisk undergrad, Dr. Kwami was a member of the group, giving him an even greater understanding of their history and musical traditions,” Breland said. “For nearly 20 years he took them to even greater heights. … Their audiences knew the Fisk Jubilee Singers concerts would be presented with style and excellence, always consistent, professional, respected and a blessing.

“His influence will always be in the hearts of those he led and those of us he influenced from afar,” Breland said.

Kwami led the 15-member Jubilee Singers to their first Grammy award in 2021 – the 150th anniversary of the ensemble’s founding in 1871 to perform for U.S. and European audiences to raise funds for their struggling five-year-old college.

The Jubilee Singers received the National Medal of the Arts in 2008 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their concert venues have included the White House, the United Nations, New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Apollo Theater and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

The ensemble traveled to Ghana in 2007, performing spirituals at Elmina Castle, one of the sites of a “door of no return” through which millions of Africans passed in the transatlantic slave trade.

“Our prayer that day,” Kwami recounted, “was that the music would be embedded in the grounds and walls of that castle, so that anyone who would walk in there would experience the forgiveness and peace of God.”

Kwami was one of seven children; his father was a farmer and music teacher. He first heard a spiritual at age 4 sung by a visiting choir. “I can still see it mentally – a picture of that choir, of the room where we were for this concert,” he once told the Nashville public radio station WPLN.

Like his father, Kwami studied to become a music teacher and played the organ at an evangelical Presbyterian church, first traveling to America on a choir tour. Later, at the suggestion of a missionary from his hometown, he traveled to Nashville to further his education at Fisk and was encouraged to audition for the ensemble soon after arriving on campus from Ghana.

‘A quiet, gentle, spiritual man’

Ruth Quarles, a two-time Fisk graduate and member of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, earned her degrees several years before Kwami enrolled, but “I have gone back to reunions and maintained a relationship with the university and have come in contact with Dr. Kwami any number of times. He was a quiet, gentle, spiritual man with a ready smile for everyone.

“Dr. Kwami’s impact helped usher today’s Jubilee Singers into the new millennium,” said Quarles, an emergency medicine and urgent care physician who operates a local clinic. “His influence, preceded by Dr. Matthew Kennedy, helped to make the music of our forefathers impactful, relevant and still an important part of the African American and American heritage today,” she said. PBS produced a documentary “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory” as part of the “American Experience” series in 1999 and the ensemble has been featured in segments on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” and numerous other TV and National Public Radio programs.

Quarles, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry in 1974 and 1976, respectively – and whose daughter is now a freshman at Fisk – said “the concerts, the history, everything about the Jubilee Singers – you can’t attend Fisk and not be impacted.”

“Had it not been for the extreme efforts of the Jubilee Singers, Fisk would not have survived,” Quarles said. Students were enlisted for a nine-member touring ensemble that raised “substantial money for the time, enough not only to save the college, but to build two dormitories,” one of which, Jubilee Hall, remains a historic landmark.

The strength of the Jubilee Singers’ spirituals, she continued, “just gets down into your soul when you hear the music, the harmony and to know that each of these songs had a deeper meaning than the words you heard.”

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for example, is “not just a song about going to heaven, it’s also a song about getting to freedom,” she said, while the song “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” reflects how “one of the ways they communicated was through song and prayer.”

Part of ‘our inward memory’

Ed Steele, recently retired professor of music at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the spirituals that Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers have taken to the world are “an important part of the canon of song in our churches” – songs that are part of “our inward memory as a body of Christ” and “the fabric of our life.”

The canon, Steele said, encompasses songs for which people don’t need a hymnal in order to sing some of the verses, whether spirituals like “Go Down Moses – Let My People Go” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or standards like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”

Spirituals have added depth to the canon from the experiences of an oppressed people, said Steele, an NOBTS faculty member since 2003 who earlier served 20 years in Central America with the International Mission Board. “They were born out of real life, real tragedy, real hardship and real joy. … The slaves in the fields could identify with the people of Israel a whole lot more than others. Those songs tell a story that we’ve not understood very well or even addressed.”

Spirituals often had a double meaning, Steele continued. “If there was an opportunity for an escape, sometimes the slaves would sing something like, ‘Wade in the water / wade in the water, children / wade in the water.’ It may have seemed they were just singing, but the song was signaling that someone could escape or was about to escape.”

Spirituals are “good, singable music,” often being “pentatonic melodies, which basically means they use only five notes like the black keys on the piano,” Steele added. Melodies birthed by true-to-life circumstances “seem to link with people of all ages across time. And that is characteristic of much of folk music across the world. The songs seem to link across international divides more quickly than many other songs.”