By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript
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.
More studies and research are being done and will continue to be done over the next few years to help bring more light to the large body of music, Ransley said.
The Festival of Spirituals started 45 years ago when Tom Carey and Carol Brice Carey moved to Norman.
“Putting Cimarron Opera together has been like putting back together pieces of a puzzle. There are things stuffed in drawers, there are stories that are left in people’s minds that they knew of Tom or Carol that they’ve done since they’ve moved here,” Ransley said. “The very first thing they did was this festival.”
The two were invited by the OU Fine Arts department to come as artists in residence. They had international careers, sang everywhere and even well known arrangers arranged spirituals specifically for Carol because they loved her voice and wanted her to sing this music, Ransley said.
“And they came here to Norman, Oklahoma in 1969,” she said. “And some of you that have lived here since 1969 know that in Norman, Oklahoma in 1969, that may not have been the friendliest place for these people to live.”
Ransley said Norman was a sundown town at the time, which means if you were a person of color, when the sun went down you needed to be on the other side of the city limits.
“To me this speaks of a bravery that I could only ever hope to try to get a corner of a piece of,” she said. “It’s their spirit that drives what we do to put this together.”
In tribute to the couple, songs the two had previously recorded were played Sunday for the crowd.
All of the music was well received by the crowd that gathered at the church Sunday night for the festival. Ransley gave a big thanks to First Presbyterian for donating space for Cimarron Opera to operate out of for nearly 40 years.
“What they’ve done to allow this company to continue to operate has not only been able to create wonderful programs for our community, like this Festival of Spirituals, but this company has over the years traveled to every corner of Oklahoma performing opera.”
For more information about Cimarron Opera, visit cimarronopera.org.
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