Sacred music and Gullah culture showcased this weekend

There is an old South Carolina sea island story of a hunter looking for a place to shoot deer. When he approaches a Gullah-speaking man and asks him if deer were in the area, the Gullah-speaker shook, “No such, wen one de-dye, de den de no den, but one yenta den, de den, den dye den.”

Simply translated, this means, “No sir, when you’re there, the deer are not there, but when you’re not there, the deer, then they’re there.”

Noted Gullah storyteller and singer Anita Singleton-Prather, along with the Gullah Kinfolk, will share similar stories and songs at “Shared Traditions: Sacred Music in the South,” a two-day symposium featuring shape-note singing, African-American spirituals and other music traditions unique to the South. The symposium starts with a meet and greet with Singleton-Prather at 3:30 p.m. Friday (Feb. 26) in the McKissick Museum on the historic Horseshoe.

Gullah culture is a way of life that originated on the coastal plantations of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia where the descendants of slaves mixed their West African food, language, artistry and religious practices with both European owners and Native American traditions.

“Gullah culture thrives today and is a testament to the power of shared traditions and cultural interaction,” says Saddler Taylor, the chief curator of folklife and fieldwork at the McKissick Museum. All events are free and open to public.

Also on Friday, Coastal Carolina University ethnomusicologist Eric Crawford will discuss the history of African-American spirituals, beginning on plantations through the civil rights movement, illustrating how they changed over time. “For example,” Crawford says, “the work song ‘Keep Your Hand on the Plow’ eventually became ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,’ a tune song throughout the nation’s civil rights crusade.”

“Between the passionate performance of Anita and the Gullah Kinfolk on Friday evening and the dynamic scholars presenting on Saturday, this promises to be an engaging event,” says Taylor, who is organizing the symposium.

The recipient of the South Carolina Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, Singleton-Prather is known as the “The First Lady of Gullah,” and has performed at the White House and appeared in the movie “Forrest Gump.” She is the director and producer of  “Circle Unbroken: A Gullah Journey from Africa to America,” a musical theater experience featuring the performance group the Gullah Kinfolk. “Circle Unbroken” will be presented at 7 p.m. in the Johnson Performance Hall in Darla Moore School of Business on the University of South Carolina Columbia campus.

The symposium moves to Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia (1066 Sunset Blvd.) for events taking place on Saturday, including a keynote address by ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt. She will present “The Legacy of Song: Gullah Tradition and the Transatlantic Dialogue.” As part of her presentation she will screen the documentary film “The Language You Cry In,” which uncovers the significance of a Gullah song sung in the Mende language of Sierra Leone.

A panel discussion by emerging scholars and a presentation by UofSC art professor Minuette Floyd are also planned. In addition, conference participants will have the opportunity to attend three music workshops focusing on shape-note and hymn-raising traditions.

Introduced in the late 1700s, shape-note hymn books printed notes with a different shape for pitch on the scale, explains Taylor. In the South, both European-American and African-American congregations adopted shape-note singing, and the tradition of gathering for singing conventions continues today.

Led by practitioners and choir leaders, these workshops will provide opportunities to learn about the history of these traditions and the chance to participate in fellowship and song. The symposium will conclude with an evening concert, highlighting the songs and styles learned during the workshops.

If you are going

Visit the Arts and Sciences website for a complete listing of events. Visit the McKissick Museum website or call 803-777-3714 for more information on this program, funded in part by the Humanities Council S.C. and the South Carolina Arts Commission. Program partners are the School of Music and Brookland Baptist Church.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about