Songs when you need them

Ysaye Barnwell

Ysaye Barnwell and the music of community, resistance, and power.

Image: (© Astrid Riecken)

© Astrid Riecken


‘Don’t sing it in your finest classical voice,” Ysaye Barnwell gently cautioned. The former bass singer with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock was teaching a chant from central Africa’s Ituri Rainforest to a mostly white group at Rowe Camp, in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. She demonstrated with her powerful voice: “Ama-ee-boo Oh-ee-yay-ee. There’s a little yodel in there. You should love that. Close your eyes . . . that’s it! Perfect!”

For the past three decades Barnwell’s day job—when she wasn’t touring and recording with Sweet Honey—has been teaching the African American tradition of community singing to groups like this one all over the world. Clad in a black leather hat and jacket, with loads of gold rings and bangles, she took center stage in the rustic recreation hall.

She gave no written music. Everything was oral. We just listened. And watched. And, most of all, felt the soul of the music and learned where it comes from. In fact, Barnwell forbids taking notes or recording.

“I don’t know a translation I can articulate. But in central Africa, someone will start singing this chant whenever there’s discord. They’ll sing as long as they have to, till the community is ready to move forward and the spiritual leaders can come in. It may take hours, even days.”

Barnwell then directed the group to sing the chant as a round, and there was the surprise. The simple chant became a dense jungle of sound. Words dissolved, and each pair of syllables undulated in waves around the room. The constant low “ama-ama-ama-ama” was insects rubbing wings together, the hooty “ee-boo” the calling of a bird. Delighted with their creation, one singer observed the chant didn’t sound like humans anymore but like a spirit sound. Another noticed she had to sing softer to listen to everyone else. “Isn’t that a concept, listening to everyone else?” Barnwell joked. “Can you apply that to conversation and negotiation? These skills are not isolated. They expand us in all kinds of directions.”

Throughout the weekend workshop she taught song after song this way. Within fifteen to twenty minutes, she had forty amateur singers filling the room with music, singing crazy dissonant harmonies and tricky polyrhythms, sometimes in seven or eight parts. Her voice would rumble a few notes with the basses, then jump a couple octaves in falsetto to support the sopranos. It wasn’t always pretty. At one point, she halted some chatter in the alto section: “Y’all having a conference? When you come to consensus, let me know, and I’ll see if I agree with it.”

Barnwell has a close-knit group of followers who have been coming to her workshops for decades—at Rowe, Esalen, Omega, Hollyhock, one at First Church in Boston in 2014, wherever she goes—who are now mostly in their 40s or older, white, and female. Singers had come to this workshop from as far as Italy, Canada, California, and Georgia and from all over the Northeast. Some were first-timers. Some were music directors and teachers themselves. Some couldn’t read music at all, and some had never sung in a group before. For some, this is the only place they sing.

“This is the most fun I know. I come to feed my spirit,” said the Rev. Dawn Sangrey, affiliated minister of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchest­er in Mount Kisco, New York. Climate activist Andrée Zaleska, who runs a zero-carbon demonstration house and community center in Boston, said singing with Barnwell lifts her for months out of the dark place her work sometimes takes her. Tina Efron first came to a workshop six years ago with her cousins, one of whom, Caron, was between cancer diagnoses. They both left feeling an urgency to find a vocal community and joined choruses. “It helped bring Caron back into her life,” Efron remembered. “And it mattered. It really mattered.”

Together these singers discovered a secret: singing can bring a community, even one together for just a weekend, into harmony. It can be a spiritual practice as deep and uplifting as prayer or meditation. It can heal and soothe. When you let something so intimate, a sound that starts inside you, go out to other people who match and blend their voices with yours, that experience connects you person-to-person.

In the summer of 1976 Ysaye Barnwell “wandered in by mistake,” she laughs during an interview, to All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. She was in her early 30s. She didn’t know it, but her life was about to change.

She grew up in New York City, the only child of a classically trained violinist who played with Harlem Renaissance ensembles and a nurse who sang in the choir of a black Baptist church. Her father picked a path for her and a name to go with it, after his favorite violinist and composer, Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe. He started training her on the violin at 2 and continued right up through her graduation from a high school for the arts. But when she left for college, she left music behind. “My father was really disappointed,” she remembers. She wanted to work with children who are deaf, and she wanted to teach black students. Howard University hired her, its youngest faculty member at age 22, to teach speech pathology.

When she walked into All Souls, “I wasn’t thinking of myself as a singer at that point,” she says. She knew the church had housed and fed civil rights marchers, and she admired its outspoken African American minister, the Rev. David Eaton, and the work of its Black Caucus. All Souls had a fabulous choir, which she joined. Right away she noticed there were lots of black folks sitting in the congregation but not in the choir, where you had to be a quick study reading sheet music—rehearsals were right before Sunday services—and the lyrics were often in foreign languages. “I thought, if that’s the reason you’re not singing, we can fix that.”

She started another choir, called the Jubilee Singers, and taught them spirituals and gospel, all orally, the way it had been done for centuries in Africa and among slaves and black churches in this country. She started writing music for the choir, like “Breaths” and a choral setting of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children.”

One Sunday, Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the original Free­dom Singers, who toured the South in the 1960s, happened to be in church. Barnwell was singing her first solo ever with the Jubilee Singers, while signing, in a service focusing on disabilities. Afterward Reagon, who had founded Sweet Honey in the Rock a few years before, approached her. The group was looking for another singer and a deaf interpreter. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know Sweet Honey,’ thinking she’s talking to someone behind me, and they’re not answering,” Barnwell recalls. She went to audition the next day, not realizing it would be three hours a day for a month. “It was, how many songs can you sing? How many parts? I had the most fun I’d ever had in my life, and in the end I was chosen.”

Four months later Howard denied Barnwell tenure. It was a blow. “I needed to reinvent myself. I just didn’t know it was going to be such a massive reinvention.”

For the next thirty-four years Ysaye Barnwell became Sweet Honey’s bedrock, holding down the sweet, low notes that can give a capella singing its richness and rhythmic pop. She wrote and arranged dozens of songs for the Grammy-nominated group. Three—“Breaths,” “We Are (Our Grandmother’s Prayers),” and “Woyaya,” her arrangement of a song by the Afro-pop band Osibisa—are in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Singing the Journey hymnal. Others are sung as anthems in UU churches: “Would You Harbor Me?” “Spiritual (Cain’t No One Know),” and “Wanting Memories.”

Busy with projects, Barnwell left Sweet Honey in 2013. Ten months later she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and underwent two surgeries and two rounds of chemo and radiation. She lost weight and her hair. “I had no idea that I could just stop working, sit home for ten months, and do nothing. Thank you for your prayers. I’m certain that they worked,” she told the Rowe crowd, where she had had to cancel a workshop the previous October. For the last year she has been back on her workshop circuit and leading monthly community sings at Levine Music School in the D.C. area. “It feels good,” she said.

In traditional Africa, music always had a function. Families and neighbors sang together when they raised their babies, spanked their kids, cooked, made tools, planted their fields. “There are songs for all those things,” Barnwell told the workshop. “You don’t find useless music.”

About half of Barnwell’s workshops are talk. She makes sure her students know where the songs come from and how to sing them with the respect and credit they deserve. She schools her singers in how slavery and its songs differed in the North and the South, even in different states. She teaches them civil rights history: how the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 was followed by the Montgomery bus boycott, on up to the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the bloodied march in Selma in 1965.

She turns solemn and angry talking about how “Kumbaya,” which means “Come by Here” in the Gullah language, has become snarky shorthand for feel-good or weak-minded groupthink. A soulful cry sung by the Georgia Sea Island slaves, the song was carried on by Southern blacks in the time of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, and later by the Freedom Riders when they learned three of their workers had been murdered by Klansmen. “When people say, ‘It was a Kumbaya moment,’ it clearly was not a Kumbaya moment,” Barnwell admonished. “It’s actually an invocation for God to come by here now because things are needed. If you hear people use it mistakenly, gently correct them.”

At each event in the story of the African people, the response has always involved singing together. “Music has the power to send out your message,” she said. “It can be your shield and your sword. People underestimate the power of the human voice.”

More Americans sing in choral groups—estimates are greater than forty million—than participate in any other public art or sport. But Barnwell isn’t about preaching to the choir here. She wants all members of a community to sing together, not just people who identify as singers. When someone at Rowe mentioned non-singers, she replied, “I don’t even consider that a category. I don’t know what that is.”

Many of Barnwell’s converts go out and spread the gospel of community singing in the oral tradition. At her first workshop sixteen years ago, Phyllis Pulver, who directed the Unity Church choir in Albany, New York, remembers, “I was a case, making staff paper in my cabin so I could write everything down. On the last day, someone said, ‘Ysaye, thank you. I found my voice. I was always told to mouth the words.’ I was in tears. I was that choir director who said, ‘You’re not good enough.’ I had a talk with my soul.” Six months later Pulver created Friends in Harmony, which sings “for pure enjoyment” monthly in her music room in Rexford, New York. Over the years she’s signed in more than 800 singers, and since retiring as a financial planner last fall, she now devotes herself completely to music.

Community-health doctor Diane Minasian’s first workshop with Barnwell, five years ago, also got her thinking differently about her work. “Often creative arts get left behind when people fall ill,” she says. She now asks her patients, “Are you singing at church again? Have you picked up your guitar?” “It’s a very useful question. If the answer is no, that will tell me something.” Last fall, Minasian brought together Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian singers and dancers in a sold-out benefit concert for a local justice organization in Barring­ton, Rhode Island. “It comes directly from Ysaye’s passion,” she says, “using the power of music to knit a community together, where there sometimes wouldn’t be an easy connection.”

Yet overall, in Barnwell’s 70 years, she has seen a sharp decline in singing in two of the places where whole communities have most often sung together in this country: political movements and churches. “When I visit different places, I see it. I’ve talked to Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists. The congregation is not singing. The choir and soloists have taken over.”

Observing recent political movements—Occupy, Black Lives Matter—she also sees little group singing in the African American tradition compared with the civil rights era, when singing was a calculated strategy that held people together on the front lines. “I find myself alarmed, and I’m not sure what it means. Young people aren’t growing up in churches that do this kind of singing. They’re not hearing it at home or school.”

Khepe-Ra Maat-Het-Heru, the only other person of color in the group at Rowe, broke in from where she’d been swaying in the back of the room: “I was part of Occupy. Somebody started singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but nobody wanted to join in. It feels played out. Some kids tried singing songs from the radio, but we need song leaders. We need new songs.”

“Nothing on the radio is groups, people singing together anymore,” Barnwell replied. Pop music is all about soloists, digitally perfected, not live harmonies. The spirituals created by the slaves, and the songs sung by civil rights marchers, were often simple, very singable, and “constantly reflected what was going on,” she said. “They’re just a base. Each generation will create its own song. I want young people to know you can update them and put in your own words. But we have to be in a room and talk about what’s important, then we all know we agree with the words.”

She started up a civil rights song, set to an old folk tune: “I ain’t a-scared of your jail ’cause I want my freedom now.” Verses in the 1960s were about dogs, hoses, and clubs. New verses sprang up around the room. Singers called out: “I ain’t a-scared of your cops! . . . guns! . . . gas! . . . hate! . . . Tasers! . . . money!”

“Can you use that today, Khepe?” Barnwell asked. “Anything you see coming at you, you’ve just got to declare. All the jails and guns—they’re still there.” Their exchange inspired Maat-Het-Heru, who leads the Spiritual Warrior Society to develop intergenerational leadership, to invite Barnwell to Asheville, North Carolina, in August to train activists in song leading and writing. The idea is that whenever and wherever protesters rise up, choirs of four to six song leaders will be ready to go and teach them songs they can use.

In closing, Barnwell told the Rowe group: “I see songs as armor when you need it. And I see songs as a blessing. We’re back to the beginning. Songs have a function. That’s what I want people to understand. They come to you when you need them.”


Ysaye Barnwell’s website:

Ysaye Barnwell’s workshops:

Listen to this article