Fisk University celebrated Jubilee Day on October 6 commemorating the historic day in 1871 when the Fisk Jubilee Singers departed Fisk to perform around the country and abroad to generate funding for the university.
On the day when they remember and commemorate their past, they also lamented the passing of their long-time director, Dr. Paul T. Kwami.
Kwami, a legend in the preservation and performance of African American spiritual music, died unexpectedly September 10, less than a month before the group’s 151stanniversary.
On October 10, Nashville celebrated the life and contributions of the long time musical director of the Jubilee Singers. He was posthumously honored with a star on the Nashville Music City Walk of Fame.
“Today my uncle, Dr. Paul T. Kwami, was cemented into history as an inductee into the Music City Walk of Fame,” said Kwami’s niece, Ruby Amanfu. “People will walk through downtown and see his name engraved forevermore as he already is in our hearts.”
In 1871, the university was strapped for cash and in danger of going under. Desperate to find a new source of revenue, the school’s music professor and treasurer, George L. White, hit on a plan: He would take Fisk’s fledgling choir (then just four men and five women) on tour to raise money.
“At first the choir performed standard Western classical music,” said Kwami in a previous interview. “And it wasn’t going very well.”
That all changed during a church concert in Oberlin, Ohio. Performing from the balcony, the singers were dismayed to see the congregation wasn’t listening. In fact, they were walking around and talking among themselves.
“Finally,” said Kwami, “one of the singers said, ‘If they’re not going to listen to us, then let’s just sing for ourselves.’ And they did. They started singing ‘Steal Away.’”
Almost immediately, the crowd fell silent. A northern audience, it turned out, had never heard anything remotely like this.
“They thought Negro music was what they’d heard in minstrel shows,” Kwami said. “The Negro spiritual was completely new to them.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers soon became a sensation, performing throughout the East and Upper Midwest, roughly tracing the path of the Underground Railroad.
The Jubilee Singers’ notoriety reached a crescendo last year when they received their first Grammy Award for their 150th anniversary album, Celebrating Fisk!