It was the former CBC Radio host Andy Barrie who suggested Lawrence Hill, author of the bestselling The Book of Negroes, get together with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a group dedicated to Afrocentric music. The rich result was Tuesday's multidisciplinary concert featuring a selection of African liturgical and spiritual songs interspersed with readings by Hill from his book.
A literary reading and a classical concert might seem like a sound combination – without benefit of the visual, both require a particular type of mental presence on the part of the audience – but it's not exactly a common event. Here, Hill and Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, the chorale's artistic director, made a strong argument for it as a seamless entertainment.
The author had reworked passages from his book so that the dozen or more short selections he read presented the entire arch of the story, about the African slave Aminata who escapes the 13 colonies for Nova Scotia, while the music, which occasionally stirred up underneath his words, painted an emotional backdrop to his themes without the songs being merely illustrative.
Named for the early 20th-century Canadian composer who drew on European Romantic music to create arrangements for African-American folk spirituals, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale is a multiracial, classically trained ensemble of 24 singers that favours a high-liturgical singing style: It's the music of the big buildings not the storefronts. Hill's project, imagining the existence of an 18th-century African slave through a 21st-century literary novel, is also an act of resurrecting folk memory through high art, and in their richness, their depth and their clarity the two companions are very well suited.
That said, I couldn't help wondering, when an audience that had been firmly told to hold the clapping broke into spontaneous applause at a particularly vigorous bass solo by Paul Novotny of the Joe Sealy Trio or a rather pedestrian rendition of Dan Hill's Deep Down Inside by soloist Jackie Richardson, whether I was the only one who would have liked the chorale to get its groove on. When the chorale sang Latin and then Ghanian lyrics for the traditional hymn Africa (with music by the contemporary Canadian composer Brian Tate), it seemed decidedly more comfortable with the former, while the latter lacked the energy traditionally associated with an African sound. Similarly, when a large group sings the traditional field shout Sun Up to Sundown as a chorale number, an audience is not really being asked to confront the pain of such lines as "No more auction block for me."
I left Koerner Hall moved by Hill's sweetly sympathetic readings from The Book of Negroes as well as deeply impressed by the range of African-American and African-Canadian material the chorale sings and the clear, pure sound it produces. Yet I also longed to hear one single African voice raised, without benefit of classical technique, in the traditional spiritual – with its lament of the torturous present and its longing for heaven in the end. Surely that would be the closest any 21st-century audience could come to hearing the voice of a slave.
Voices of the Diaspora: The Book of Negroes
- The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
- At Koerner Hall
- In Toronto on Tuesday