Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles
The Black Vocality symposium is part of the three-year project ROTVOSCIAME (The Role of Traditional Vocal Styles in Reshaping Cultural Identities Related to African Diasporas in America and Europe).
Designed by Gianpaolo Chiriacò, the research is being supported by a Marie Curie-International Outgoing Fellowship, financed by the European Union. The project looks at the history and anthropology of African-American singing styles across genres, and it aims to provide an interdisciplinary analysis of the different developments and connotations of vocality within the African diaspora.
Considering the singing voice as a complex means of expression (not only a musical instrument nor just a vehicle for the language), as the ultimate locus where cultural connections still exist and operate, the project aims to track the presence of vocal traditions developed within the African diaspora in America and Europe. It also looks at how specific vocal styles have been (and are) functional in expressing and reshaping new cultural identities.
Video Excerpts (Presentations, Performances, Discussions, Q/A)
Monica Hairston O’Connell
“Reflections on Black Voices in a “Post-Racial” Era”
“I Sing Forever: Perceptions and Performances of a Black Vocality”
Alisha Lola Jones
“Gendered Sound and Black Vocal Performances in Contemporary Gospel”
Countertenors are typically men who perform music that matches the vocal range and timbre of female contraltos and mezzo-sopranos in the Western art music tradition. These men are typically trained to deploy a full-bodied vocal delivery such that listeners are unable to determine whether the sound is emanating from a male or female body. Black male operatic countertenors who perform in Christian churches and other gospel settings must contend with a distinct set of cultural tensions to demonstrate their performative competency. Music ministers also face challenges in choosing repertoire for countertenors, particularly when those ministers lack experience working with men with that vocal designation. Shared anxieties concerning uses of the body in performance reveal the ways in which black male gesture is a contested component within gospel contexts. Drawing on a case study of a black male countertenor and ethnography of his performance, this paper explores perceptions of a sexually indistinguishable vocal sound. I highlight the socio-theological complications that arise as sonically ambiguous performances of gender compete with longstanding hetero-normative constructs. In what ways do countertenors negotiate their performances of sexuality and gender in gospel performance? How do biomusical perceptions shape notions of communal identity and belonging? I suggest that bio-musicality offers a fresh way of approaching these questions and the broader role of gendered sound in black performance.
“The Anatomy of a Black Voice: Peculiarities, Challenges, Regional Differences”, is a performative presentation that will explore aspects of the “black voice and sound” as it relates to singing. Many would say that the “black voice” is instantly recognizable when compared to voices of other races, while others believe that the different quality comes solely from the experiences and convictions of the singer and not of his or race. This presentation will look at the make-up of standard human vocal anatomy and the practices of proper singing, while investigating how the “black sound” and musical traditions apply to classical music, opera, pop, and jazz. The presentation will include musical examples ranging from operatic repertoire to rural church music. It will also include commentary from noted performers and educators in the field of singing and will examine black singers and styles from beyond the AfricanAmerican experience.
“Making the Song Your Own: Discourses of Race, Authenticity, and Melisma in the 21st Century Pop Voice”
Vocality is an exquisitely fraught concept. It encompasses not only the act of vocalization but also the profoundly complex social world in which such an act resonates, comprising a set of vocal sounds, practices, techniques, and meanings that factor in the making of culture. In the history of American popular music—which is also the history of race in America—ideas about vocality have carried particular significance, and even the smallest vocal gesture can articulate the brutal dynamics of racialization, appropriation, and power that have shaped U.S. identity politics. One such gesture—melisma—has come to encapsulate these intricate workings as they are understood in the early twenty-first century. It is an aural symbol of racial and national authenticities, a polysemic sign of blackness and of Americanness at a moment when both are at the forefront of public political discourse. This presentation discusses the role of melisma in the difficult negotiation of American identities, highlighting the importance of how we use and how we hear voices.
“The Soul of a Jazz Singer: Recollection and Response”
The traditional music of the black church has been the basis for many contemporary singing styles.
Steeped in the music of slaves and based purely on traditions passed down from generation to generation, most performers develop a repertory of sounds that include a storehouse of musical memories. These musical choices, often used as the basis for improvisation, have been developed through repetition, rather than through the application of theoretical practices. Recalling these memories and utilizing them in performances is the response to the spontaneous creativity that is often referred to as “soul”.
“Multi-Lingualism as a Source of Inspiration”
Building upon the personal search for a vocal identity, the presentation aims to investigate scat vocabulary in a multi-lingual environment. As the sounds of each language have peculiar resonances, the focus will be on how these resonances can enrich the melodic and rhythmic construction of a vocal solo and enhance musical communication. In this context, jazz has been conceived as a tool for improvisation. The specific approach has led to a wide range of collaborations, both with performers (singers as well as actors) and with scholars in scientific areas such as quantum physics and biology.
Sage Morgan-Hubbard and Stacy Rene Erenberg
“Sounds of Words: Within and without the Language”
This performative presentation explores the multiple meanings and sounds of words; the musicality of both spoken and sung words within African-American and African diasporic vernacular poetry and songs. Diving deep into the heart of investigations of vocality within diverse musical genres and aesthetics (such as jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, and hip hop), we will explore questions such as: How have words played and vibrated within various black communities over the past century? What is the power and usefulness of experiencing words as music and songs as poetry? Is it important to categorize our art forms as separate categories, or could it be productive to let them blend and flow into each other more organically? This presentation will focus on personal work, artists we each were inspired by and how our artistry, perception and identities connect
and intersect with larger trends within African-American music.
“Creating a Personal Story: Songs and Narratives”
The presentation will address how, drawing from the tradition and from words by other authors, it is possible to create a personal story that can communicate to a nowadays audience. Using “Legacy” as an example, the possibility to tell a story that is ancient and contemporary at the same time, using songs, sounds, poetry and words, will be explored. But the story told is also a narrative of personal research, intended to motivate people to search for their own roots.
Mankwe Ndosi and Aimee K. Bryant