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Feature review: Conspirare: Craig Hella Johnson & Company of Voices, Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals

Conspirare: Craig Hella Johnson & Company of Voices
Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals
[Harmonia Mundi (2011)]

The annotation to this CD states that the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak “concluded that the spiritual was the only genuine folk music in America from which a national music could be developed.” These days spirituals don’t have a high profile on the music scene but some of them often show up in the contemporary choral repertoire. Conspirare is a respected choir from Austin, Texas whose latest project consists entirely of sprituals, most of them drawn from Slave Songs of the United States (1867). Some of them, such as “Motherless Child,” “Been in de Storm/Wayfaring Stranger,” “Ain’-a That Good News,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” are widely known. The choir is obviously ensconced in the classical tradition so the fact that only a handful of its 35 or so members are African-American is a moot point.

There are several remarkable aspects to Sing Freedom!: The Super Audio sound is impressive, and the 55-page trilingual booklet (English, French, German) is exemplary. The arrangements are drawn from a variety of musical luminaries both living (choir director Craig Hella Johnson, David Lang, Robert Kyr) and deceased (William Dawson, Moses Hogan, Robert Shaw, Sir Michael Tippett). Rather than the choir relying on unison singing, the arrangements allow for a fairly wide variety of vocal shadings and soloing. The sound is obviously far removed from more earthy approaches, such as that associated with Sweet Honey in the Rock or as one might find on Smithsonian/Folkways recordings. In the same way that Dvorak drew from the folk music idioms of his native Bohemia, Conspirare takes songs borne out of a distant situation of desperation and converts them to a more formalized and ostensibly more universal genre.

—Paul-Emile Comeau (Comeauville, NS, Canada)

[Editor’s note: At the time this article was scheduled, the album was on sale at Amazon’s MP3 store for $5. Quite a steal for 17 songs and over an hour of music.]

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