On February 9, 2019 Intersection and Choral Arts Link presented its third Upon These Shoulders concert at Fisk University. This annual concert series seeks to highlight “the voices of civil rights foot soldiers who forged new freedom pathways and whose strong shoulders continue holding us up.” This year Intersection brought in classical composer and jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe to present a number of lectures and his masterpiece Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a-Traveling (2017), which is a requiem for the nine victims of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The evening was remarkable, not just for the aspects that made it a celebration, but also the deep emotions and grief experienced by everyone in the room; I believe it took us all by surprise.
The evening began with a “Walk of Love” which proceeded from the front of the Fisk Chapel to Jubilee Hall on Fisk University Campus. At the front of the building one of the Fisk singers described its history as the very building the Jubilee singers funded with their tour in 1873, saving the university by acquiring the funds to build the first permanent structure for the explicit purpose of the education of black students. Inside the building remains the original portrait of the singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria after their visit.
After some discussion the audience returned to the chapel to hear Sarah Collins, the survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama speak of her experiences of that day. Collins, in her discussion, detailed the events of the day, but also spoke of her time in the hospital after, recovering.
This was followed by Tyler Samuel’s performance of Caccini’s Ave Maria, in an arrangement by Andre van Haren. It was already a remarkably moving evening as Lokumbe and Maestra Corcoran took to the stage.
Inside the Fisk Chapel, while waiting for the concert to begin, the full audience took in the standards painted by Steve Prince which represented the 9 victims, now canonized by Lokumbe and Prince as Saints. The paintings including various aspects and relics of their lives. Indeed, the evening was nothing short of ritual. The work’s movements, titled veils, were a testament given from each victim who, when asked “What is it you would ask to be recorded into the Book of Ages?” gave an imagined testimony of their thoughts in the moment of the shooting. Some were quite powerful, especially the forgiveness of the murderer:
As the flog of crossed stars began to flutter inside the narrow space of his houng shattered heart – Reverend Pickney extended to him the hand of grace – but the shadows surrounding him and the tongues whispering to him from within the fluttering blood stained banner – commanded that he do – what they sent him to do.
(Veil Three: Ethel Lee Lance)
Or messages to the loved ones they left behind as they proceeded to their reward:
At the church that night, it made it easier to bear, knowing that our children would have you to comfort them and to help them heal from the madness of it all. And for your comfort and healing my blessed husband you have the eternal truth of my love, Your Loving Wife, Myra.
(Veil Five: Myra Thompson)
As they read or sang these texts the performers broke down and or had to pause—indeed I couldn’t find a dry eye in the audience. Soprano Koko Onwuzuruigbo and Mezzo Soprano Funmike Lagoke both brought a rich and emotional delivery that brought their saints to life—particularly the vocalise of “Veil Eight: Susie Jackson.” Tenor Roderick Dixon performed with an enchanting charisma, especially in the “Veil Nine: Tywanza Sanders,” where his dialogue with the choir and repeated exclamations for Freedom brought the room back into a joyous celebration. The MET singers, a wonderful children’s choir directed by Margaret Campbelle-Holman, were exquisitely prepared as always and the enthusiasm of the adults in the community choir helped to contribute to the magic of the event.
Lakumbe’s skills as a composer are quite wide ranging from the through-composed classic genres to the blues inflections of a second line march, the music was at times raucous, moving, celebratory or devastatingly tragic in its push further down Charles Mingus’s third stream. However, Lokumbe’s chops on his trumpet were equally remarkable. Extended techniques, circular breathing and, in moments, a simply beautiful tone clearly demonstrated the genius of this man’s playing. The rhythm section of David Pulphus (bass), Cecil Brooks III (percussion), and Anthony Wonsey (piano) maintained a pocket that was high and wide, facilitating each of their own incredible solos in the improvisatory sections of the composition, particularly in the “Veil Two: Daniel Simmons Sr” a victim who had a love for music.
From Fisk University in 1873 to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to North Carolina 2017, the evening told a story of the racial troubles in the United States but it also gave a vision of hope and forgiveness—a path for the future. Each year Intersection’s Upon the Shoulder’s concert is one of the most important culture events in Music City and this year is no different. I am quite interested to see what they do next year.