Saved events

Nadine Benjamin: Songs of Joy

Nadine Benjamin smiling in front of a white background

Tonight’s protagonists offer a programme of songs and poems that celebrate the richness and joy of black and mixed-heritage experiences.

Some time ago, through the initiative of Elizabeth de Brito, we started a conversation on the subject of joy in song. We all had a particular interest in the art songs of African heritage and mixed-heritage composers, Elizabeth through her work on The Daffodil Perspective (an online classical radio show with a focus on gender equity), Nadine and I through our performances; and all of us through research and our relationships with living composers. Though we had an experience of the complex stories of African and mixed-heritage people, we had often seen our lives, as people of colour, portrayed in the mainstream arts only through suffering. We wanted to change that perspective.

We started a conversation on joy. Some of the associations that emerged were:

Michael: ‘Joy can be catharsis. That means, it’s not always nice things that are said or done – but things that are true from the source from which they emanate.’

Michael: ‘Joy is the spiritual – the song in the strange land. The song created from the various parts of me slammed together through catastrophe. Zerrissen, the German word for “torn” (asunder), suggests for me that there is a possibility of this destruction revealing light.’

Nadine: ‘The subject of joy is a complex one but by no means complicated. The joys of living, learning and moving through adversity all have different levels of expression. Finding a way to harmonise the stories being told while making space to include all voices was challenging but between us we found a way to unpick the deeper messages within them.’

Caroline: ‘… Nitin Sawnhey, recounting his travels in India, remembered seeing a group of very poor young boys – so poor – without proper clothes or proper shoes playing football (without a proper ball!), and yet in that moment they had the biggest smiles he had ever seen … without all the trappings … these young boys were still finding fun, enjoyment and laughter.

‘I think it’s wonderful that amid immense suffering and oppression – across the ages and which still continues today – we can find these times of joy through a rich culture, love, music, dance, relationships, nature, our dreams and aspirations and so much more!’

Elizabeth: ‘The Daffodil Perspective is about joy and light and equity, so I wanted something to continue that message in this concert. In our work and world there is often a narrative of negativity: it can be difficult not to look at the politics and virtue signalling and not feel sorrow.

‘I wanted something to focus on black and mixed-race stories through the lens of joy, their experience of joy.’

Joy is multifaceted for us, and we wanted to share that.


The music

Since before Tudor times Africans have participated in the making of music in Europe. There is the image of ‘John Blanke the blacke Trumpet’ in the court of Henry VIII in the Westminster Tournament Roll – whose story is fleshed out in Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story.

Later, came the 18th-century composer and abolitionist, Ignatius Sancho in England, Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in France and George Bridgetower, who was born in Poland but settled in England. In the same century, spirituals and work songs arose through the experiences of enslaved Africans in the American colonies, where they often played instruments among themselves, for entertainment in cities, and on plantations. The celebrated fiddler, George Walker from Virginia is one such example.

With the influence of religious revivals and conversions to Christianity, some of the songs developed into the Negro spiritual, and often served as coded messages for communication and abolitionist movements. After the American Civil War (1861–5), many educational institutions were established to school formerly enslaved African Americans. At one such, Fisk School (Fisk University), there was a need to raise funds to support the work of the college. The Fisk Jubilee Singers set off on their international journey to raise money for the school and, equally importantly, to disseminate the songs of the slaves – the spirituals. They sang in private audiences for the Earl of Shaftsbury, Queen Victoria, the Prime Minister William Gladstone and Kaiser Wilhelm. They and other ‘jubilee’ groups performed in various cities throughout the UK, US, Europe, South Africa and Australia. These songs were to be influential to the many composers in Europe and the Americas, but especially those of the African diaspora.

The year 1898 saw the hugely successful premiere of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast by the Afro-British composer (of mixed English and Sierra Leonean heritage), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; he subsequently toured it to the United States on three occasions. Coleridge-Taylor was greatly influenced by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the writer-philosopher, W E B Dubois, Dvořak and Brahms. He was impressed by his visits to the States and the music of African Americans. He later made the acquaintance of Harry T Burleigh, a celebrated African American composer whose songs were performed by the most famous singers of the early 20th century, including Marian Anderson, Alma Gluck, Roland Hayes, John McCormack and Paul Robeson. The two composers corresponded regularly; Burleigh had also been a protege of Dvořak and had taught him about African American music. Both Burleigh and Coleridge-Taylor were revered internationally.

In 1916 Burleigh penned the popular art song arrangement of the spiritual Deep River. It was to inspire the creativity of a whole generation of composers who flourished during the period of the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, Pan Africanism, the Black Arts Movements – and still today.

In this recital we explore some of the songs (of joy) by the composers directly influenced by Burleigh and Coleridge-Taylor, others who will have indirectly benefitted from their legacies and still more who have found their inspiration in the multifarious sources of cultures from Africa, the Caribbean Islands, Europe, Asia and other cultures from around the world.

The pieces in tonight’s programme take in the burgeoning of song through the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances and beyond, through the lush songs of Florence Price, the lively and dramatic texts and accompaniments of Undine Smith Moore, and the intricate harmonies and social commentary of Margaret Bonds. In the UK, the short-lived legacy of Coleridge-Taylor, through his daughter, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, and Amanda Ira Aldridge, daughter of the celebrated 19th-century tragedian, Ira Aldridge. Both women were of mixed African and European heritage and composed both classical and popular music – the popular songs under the sobriquets, Peter Riley and Montague Ring, respectively.

There is still much research to be done on their output and the works of many of the mid-century composers from the African continent and the wider diaspora. Some major scholarship has begun with Professor Olabode Omojola, Professor Christine Gangelhoff, Professor Felicia Sandler, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Michael Harper (RNCM), Professor Darryl Taylor of the African-American Art Song Alliance, and Professor Louise Toppin of the African Diaspora Project.

In the US, the diasporic song continued to thrive, but in Britain it seems to have skipped a generation. So the second half of our programme is focused on living composers and the lively creations influenced by the rhythms and lives on the continent of Africa, Europe and in the Caribbean, sometimes transferred and replanted in various parts of the world. The list includes the songs of Innocent Ndubuisi Okechukwu (Nigeria), Shirley Thompson (Britain), Cleophas Adderley (The Bahamas), Errollyn Wallen (Belize), Dominique Le Gendre (Trinidad), Franz Hepburn (The Bahamas), Tebogo Monnakgotla (Sweden), Ella Jarmin-Pinto (Britain), Roderick Williams (Britain), Tom Randall (USA) and Hannah Kendall (Britain). Not forgetting a flourishing new generation in the US either: Maria Thompson Corley (Canada), Richard Thompson (born in Scotland but US-based), Sylvia Hollifield (USA) and Rosephanye Powell (USA).


The poetry

For us, this is the thread of joy running through the whole narrative of the African diaspora. Whether self-produced, as in the actual poetry from the pen of African- or mixed-heritage composers, or borrowed from other cultures (as in the texts of some of the songs), they relate the tales of so many joys. The poetry we have chosen exemplifies the lives of the people from the many places and facets of the diaspora, as if refracting light through a stained glass window of our collective stories.

We are excited to bring this programme to you as a celebration of these composers and poets and their lived experiences. As we share with you their stories, we also tell our own in real time, making room for further exploration and understanding in the joy of being human.


© Michael Harper, Elizabeth de Brito, Nadine Benjamin and Caroline Jaya-Ratnam

Programme and performers

Betty Jackson King In the Springtime
Innocent Ndubuisi Okechukwu Ome N’Ala
Margaret Bonds Dream Variation
Rosephanye Powell Songs for the People
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 'The Rainbow-Child' from Songs of Sun and Shade
Sylvia Hollifield In Time of Silver Rain
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 'This is the Island of Gardens' from Songs of Sun and Shade
Tebogo Monnakgotla Images lunaires
Undine Smith Moore Watch and Pray
Jacqueline Hairston Dormi, Jesu
Errollyn Wallen My Feet May Take A Little While
Traditional, arr Undine Smith Moore Come Down Angels
Undine Smith Moore Love Let the Wind Cry How I Adore Thee
Harry T Burleigh Elysium

Amanda Ira Aldridge Fickle Singers
Richard Thompson Black Pierrot
Avril Coleridge-Taylor Sleeping and Waking
Maria Thompson Corley My Heart is Awake
Ella Jarman-Pinto This Little Rose
Florence Price Night
Barbara Sherill & Byron Motley Mae’s Rent Party
R Nathaniel Dett The Ordering of Moses
Shirley Thompson Precious Skies
Dominique Le Gendre Agua, dónde vas?
Roderick Williams Love
Hannah Kendall 'In a Great Silence' from The Knife of Dawn 
Cleophas Adderley Nassau Harbour
Franz Hepburn Yes
Tom Randle Turn Around
Errollyn Wallen Peace on Earth

Woven between the songs is poetry read by Michael Harper

Nadine Benjamin soprano
Caroline Jaya-Ratnam piano
Michael Harper speaker
Elizabeth de Brito co-curator

Texts and translations

Artist biographies