Hogan played his own arrangement of "Deep River"
eight times in about an hour at Disney Institute during a
picture-perfect February afternoon, once for each of the African-American
high-school vocalists who joined him onstage, one at a time,
to compete for two college scholarships. But the day was about
much more than competition; with their songs, the students
also were playing an important role in preserving and promoting
a revered art form.
Negro spirituals sung that day derived from the field hollers
of American slaves. These raw vocal origins have found a new
life in formal music, and the songs have no stronger proponent
in America than Orlando’s Negro Spiritual Scholarship
the revival of Negro spirituals as seen in Orlando is a perfect
marriage of art and community, with lyrics resonating into
the consciousness of those who hear the songs. So believes
Rudi Cleare, director of the scholarship foundation, a man
of deeds who has marshaled the energies of others, including
teachers, families and art aficionados, to give African-American
high-school students a new reason to sing their hearts out.
in both the sanctity of an art form and in the young voices
that could keep it vibrant and meaningful, Cleare says the
foundation was his way of preserving the legacy of this music
while promoting contemporary artists whose talents can keep
"the original African-American cultural expression"
the songs were sung at the competition, one might have noticed
that many different artists were involved in this cultural
preservation: the kids on stage, themselves youthful descendants
of slaves who sang these songs as a way to set their souls
free; the celebrated composer/arranger working with them;
and the administrators and donors who availed this opportunity
for helping shape their future.
Chester may be a prime example of what could result if the
up on Orlando’s west side can be a challenge for a young
black male. No wonder then that, living in the shadow of the
Citrus Bowl, Chester says his childhood dream was to join
the ranks of those professional athletes commonly held up
as role models for kids like him. Blessed with a suitable
physique, a good mind and the disposition to train hard without
complaint, he saw the NFL in his future. That is, until he
joined ranks with four other boys who entered to compete for
the Grady-Rayam Prize in Sacred Music, a competition that
awards one scholarship each to a male and a female student.
the day of competition, however, Chester was the only male
remaining in the field. One young man’s father had decided
that basketball camp was preferable to singing for his son.
Other students (and parents) fielded more compelling reasons
for dropping out: family problems like death or illness, and
even one, a Seventh-Day Adventist, who encountered a conflict
based on religious conviction. Amazingly, Chester arrived
at the competition knowing nothing of the drama that had built
up around him. But there was no guarantee the prize would
be his. He would have to perform to high standards, and perhaps
even exceed them, before any final honors could be bestowed.
indeed, the bar was set high. All aspects of the competition
were extraordinarily professional. The young singers all were
trained vocalists performing in the classical recital style,
which does not allow for ornamentation, scooping or amplification;
the contestants couldn’t jazz up their performances
or gesture inordinately. It was each person alone on stage,
both real and existential: Each performer simultaneously faced
the past and future. Such an opportunity was denied the teens’
forefathers who, as slaves, could face only their fears and
presence of these ancestors, though, was palpable. To give
these songs their due, the singer must transport him or herself
back to the cotton fields where, from the African call-and-response
tradition, these spirituals were born. In the work camps,
a leader would call out a phrase and the others would extend
the sentiment or otherwise respond. Sometimes the words would
be codified to keep the slave master from knowing what the
slaves were thinking, dreaming or planning. For example, the
lyrics "Way down yonder by myself, I couldn’t hear
nobody pray" signified that a runaway slave was poised
to reach the Underground Railroad.
piece commissioned for this year’s competition and required
of all performers, "Deep River," was squarely in
this tradition. The note that "my home is over Jordan"
echoes the religious yearning to find relief from life’s
troubles in a new life after death, but all the same refers
to a real-world plan for escaping into the freedom to be found
"up North." Other even more subtle characteristics
of spirituals also were present. Singers would, for instance,
moan or hum in places for the benefit of the devil "who
knew you were talking to God, but didn’t know what you
were saying," according to Robert Williams of Bethune-Cookman
College, an authority on black sacred music in the oral tradition
and chairman of the board of directors of the Negro Spiritual
Scholarship Foundation. The young performers who took the
stage at the Disney Institute had to empathize with their
forefathers to lend these songs a meaning that can’t
be found in school books. As teacher and arranger Hogan told
them, it takes "conviction" to sing such songs of
grief and deliverance.
biblical stories as a cornerstone, these songs began in the
early 1600s to account for one’s personal relationship
to God. But their impact goes well beyond the individual.
Since the slaves were kept illiterate, the songs constitute
a wellspring about the journey of blacks in America. The spirituals
fed popular forms of black music, including gospel -- 20th-century
church music that’s an up-tempo and joyous tribute to
the tenets of the New Testament -- jazz and the blues. Perhaps
it’s a stretch, but spirituals could be considered a
counterpart to rap, which is also a music of its time, born
of estrangement. The spiritual song was created by and for
a particular people in bondage. But as those who know the
music will attest, its impact is not limited to race, to a
historical time frame, or even to America’s national
when the eight competitors finally took their places on stage,
Hogan’s first chords were the start of a challenge.
Two seemingly contradictory qualities had to be presented
without doubt: a virtuoso performance and an unlettered message.
The words they were singing were not designed as performance
pieces. There was no sheet music for the slaves who long ago
breathed life in the words. Only if the young interpreter
of the song could lose the self to the music, gaining access
to the integrity of a rural black dialect from the past, as
well as to the aspirations that drove these slave songs centuries
ago -- understanding, for instance, that "chariots"
and "wings" were references to transportation and
transformation, that this world is not home -- could these
teen-agers bring the song to life.
the audience, family members, teachers and guests representing
Orlando Opera Company and the Community Foundation of Central
Florida sat in clusters throughout the theater. These two
organizations are instrumental in helping Rudi Cleare fulfill
his dream of seeing youths include God in their maturation
through participating in the preservation of the African-American
art form and by setting their eyes on a college education.
The silence of the audience was prayerlike, broken only by
one round of applause for each contestant after they performed
first the required number and then a second spiritual, one
of their choosing. It was a form of tribute befitting the
seriousness with which these young people approach and interpret
such sacred songs. Said competitor Chanda Cummings: "Anyone
can sing, but you can’t put everything you have into
a song until you have experienced it. Struggle is in our heritage."
Chester, Tarard Chester’s grandmother and a Pentecostal
minister, may have said it best when talking about the effect
of religious music in black worship. "When the singer
believes in God," she said, "the words are anointed
and flow into the audience."
Chester himself explained the nearly motionless demeanor he
displayed on stage: "I think of the song while I’m
singing the song, so much so that I become afraid to move
or gesture, because that might distract me. I try so hard
to put myself in the place of the person telling the story
or being talked about in the story."
the competition was over, there were, everyone knew, eight
winners. All the students distinguished themselves as they
honored the voices of generations ago. The judges rated DeAngela
Roberson, a returning vocalist from the previous year, as
best among the females. And Tarard Chester was indeed named
the male winner, but this was not as inevitable as one might
Chester, the final moments were especially tense. A whisper
that he might not have it wrapped up if the expert judges
decided that his performance didn’t make the grade was
deafening. Backstage, his occasional jaw-tightening belied
his otherwise stoic expression. But on stage he looked out
into and through the audience, and became anonymous as he
let himself go back in time. There were no doubts when he
finished the last note of his selected piece, "Go Down
Moses." His song had worked its magic. As he had said:
"The story that I’m telling, I can relate to. It
happens everyday at school. I’m trying to get them [other
students] to think positive."
the background of the competition’s drama stood the
teachers who work tirelessly to train and coach the young
singers, but can only look on with hopeful faces as a pupil
performs. Chester, along with other students of Jones High
School, is in the debt of Edna Sampson Hargrett, Florida’s
Secondary Music Teacher of the Year for 1998. As DeAngela
Roberson, from Jones High School, said, "Our teachers
go beyond. They’re like our mothers, even down to telling
us how to dress when it’s cold out."
people left the theater and the contestants posed for pictures
with the judges and revered guests, it was as though Hogan
hadn’t played "Deep River" eight times. Although
he had arranged the song expressly for the foundation and
played it with clinical precision for the competitors, it
did what it was supposed to do -- give the artists a structure
with which to identify their cultural past and build their
futures. Each time he played the song was a first.