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April 14, 2014

Festival of Spirituals celebrates music’s history

NORMAN — African American spirituals rang out in the First Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday during Cimarron Opera’s 45th Annual Festival of Spirituals.

The event featured the Northern Oklahoma College Choir, OU Trombone Choir, Boulevard Brass Quintet, First Presbyterian Church Youth Choir and several vocalists.

“We’re thrilled that this program is still going, it’s still happening,” said Shari Ransley, Cimarron Opera executive director.

Directing the OU Trombone Choir was Professor Irv Wagner, who arranged “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” performed at the church Sunday. Wagner said the trombone choir participated at the very first Festival of Spirituals back in 1969.

“The spirituals are really, to me, a fascinating body of music,” Ransley said. “Most of us in this room, if we’re really honest with ourselves, don’t know much about the music, how it was created, where it came from.”

Ransley said the music is an integral part of American expression. It started with enslaved African Americans who passed along the music orally. The first 200 years we have no idea what it sounded like or how it happened because this was not exactly a group of people whose voices were listened to, she said.

After the civil war, the music nearly disappeared. However, thankfully, a few arrangers sat down to capture the music in order to provide a “snapshot in time” of what the spirituals are, she said.

“This music that nearly almost disappeared has woven itself into gospel, R&B, jazz, pop, blues, really any genre of music,” Ransley said. “This body of music encompasses so many different types of tone.”

There were songs sung to pass time while hard labor was being done, songs sung to help lift spirits in the evening and songs sung that resonate with meaning and hope and spirituality that were there to help express the soul of the people, she said.

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