When the Georgia Sea Island Singers step onto the stage of the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday at 1 p.m., it will be not only a musical performance but a teachable moment.
The musical group continues a tradition passed down from one of the early African-American cultures in the United States, the Gullah community from West Africa who were enslaved to work on rice plantations. The Georgia Sea Island Singers share their songs and stories set against the history and mystique of the islands that give the group its name.
Frankie Quimby, who leads the group, says the musicians have traveled around the world performing not just to provide entertainment but also to keep alive the authentic sound of their culture.
“The more you teach the way it was done, it will be alive,” she says from her home in Georgia. “If you don’t, it will die. I’m a firm believer in that. Sometimes things get lost.”
You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from. It’s our culture; it’s everybody’s culture. — Frankie Quimby, leader, Georgia Sea Island Singers
Traveling to Storrs to perform is part of a connection the Georgia Sea Island Singers established with the University in 2013, when the group was part of a teacher education program focused on Gullah culture developed by Robert Stephens and Mary Ellen Junda, professors of music in the School of Fine Arts, under a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant. The program, which was held in Savannah, Ga., attracted 80 elementary and high school teachers for two one-week sessions on the history of the Gullah people explored through the arts.
Quimby says Stephens and Junda are building on the work of Alan Lomax, the musicologist and record producer who traveled throughout the United States recording folk musicians for the Archive of the American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
“Mary Ellen and Bob want it to be done right,” Quimby says. “We who love [the music] want it to be authentic. It will get lost if we don’t. It touches my heart and pleases me. We don’t want it to die.”
The Georgia Sea Island Singers will perform along with the UConn vocal ensemble Earthtones, a group of students in a music and culture class in the School of Fine Arts, and Voices of Freedom, which is focused on gospel and spiritual music of the Black Experience Church.
Jillian Dicks, a graduate student in choral conducting, says the students in Earthtones were challenged in learning music they did not know.
“They’re coming from a more traditional, classical Western background with pop and hip-hop,” Dicks says. “It’s been challenging from a historical background and a practical background of how this music is supposed to sound. They’re used to sheet music and having direction, versus an oral tradition of improvising and feeling the music that’s full of movement. They’ve risen to the challenge in amazing ways.”
Junda says each semester the Earthtones vocal ensemble focuses on learning the music of a new culture in depth, under the guidance of a master teacher from the culture. Previous classes have covered the music of the Civil Rights Movement and of Trinidad and Tobago.
Earlier this week during a rehearsal of Gullah songs by Earthtones, Junda called Quimby so she could hear the students in her class – nine undergraduate students, three graduate students, and two community members – singing over the phone.
“They did a good job,” Quimby said. “I was impressed. That’s another generation that could carry [the tradition] and hand it down.”
The Georgia Sea Island Singers will continue their relationship with UConn next summer when Junda and Stephens will conduct another two weeks of teacher workshops in Georgia in July, thanks to a new $180,000 grant under the NEH Landmarks of American History Program.
Junda says the 2013 program drew an overwhelmingly favorable response from the teachers who participated in the program, which included presentations by both academic scholars and cultural historians.
“What the teachers enjoyed was learning history and culture through the arts,” Junda says. “It’s very meaningful to them not only to have performances of the material – like the music this weekend in Storrs – but explanations of why it’s endured for over 200 years.”
Quimby agrees: “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from. It’s our culture; it’s everybody’s culture. The younger people need to know, and people need to be aware of how it actually happened.”
For more information about the Georgia Sea Island Singers performance on campus, go to the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts website.
Watch the Georgia Sea Island Singers perform here.