Songs trace jour­ney to free­dom

> BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

Sto­ries of the Un­der­ground Rail­road have al­ways been part of Khari Wen­dell Mcclel­land’s fam­ily lore. With rel­a­tives on both sides of the Detroit River—the 44-kilo­me­tre chan­nel that sep­a­rates Detroit, Michi­gan, from Wind­sor, On­tario—he’s al­ways been acutely con­scious of his roots in the re­gion, and of an older and less com­fort­able con­nec­tion to the Amer­i­can South.

“I can’t ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber the first time I ever heard those sto­ries, be­cause they’ve just al­ways been a part of how our fam­ily has un­der­stood our­selves,” the singer says, check­ing in with the Ge­or­gia Straight from a tour stop in Gananoque, On­tario. “As I have ma­tured and grown and found some in­ter­est in con­nect­ing with con­cepts of iden­tity through look­ing at fam­ily, I’ve cho­sen to ask some more de­tailed ques­tions…in an ef­fort, re­ally, to un­der­stand who I am, and what it is I’m meant to be do­ing in this time on this planet.”

Those ques­tions, and some of the an­swers Mcclel­land re­ceived, are at the heart of Free­dom Singer, a new doc­u­men­tary-theatre pro­ject that traces his great-great-great-grand­mother Kizzy’s per­ilous jour­ney from slav­ery to lib­er­a­tion. And though the sto­ries and the songs it fea­tures might be a cen­tury and a half old, they con­tain dis­cov­er­ies that will be new to many view­ers—and some that were new to Mcclel­land him­self.

“It’s in­cred­i­ble to take the time to speak with your great-aunt—and to speak with your own mother, even— about events that you might have not thought to ask about,” he says, not­ing that the big­gest rev­e­la­tion was that he has In­dige­nous blood. “It’s been amaz­ing to learn so much about my fam­ily his­tory, and there’s a rich­ness to what it feels like to con­nect in that way.”

It’s not sur­pris­ing that many of those con­nec­tions come through mu­sic. As the youngest mem­ber of Van­cou­ver’s lead­ing African-amer­i­can gospel group, the So­journ­ers, Mcclel­land has been tu­tored in the sounds of the civil-rights strug­gle by a pair of rel­a­tively re­cent ar­rivals from the United States, Mar­cus Mosely and Will Saun­ders. Now he’s tak­ing those lessons back to their source, ex­plor­ing the songs his fam­ily mem­bers might have sung as they found their way north from the plan­ta­tions of the Con­fed­er­acy. There have been sur­prises here, too.

“A lot of what I found was re­ally dark. It’s not su­per happy stuff,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff around death, and a lot of stuff around moth­ers and an­ces­tors and even child theft—you know, moth­ers’ sep­a­ra­tion from their chil­dren. That’s one of the most core re­la­tion­ships in a child’s de­vel­op­ment, so the re­moval of a child from a mother is a re­ally harsh thing to do.”

And while his­toric doc­u­ments sug­gest singing dole­ful lyrics like “Never the Child Be Sold” to sunny, fa­mil­iar tunes like “Oh My Dar­ling, Cle­men­tine”, Mcclel­land has made it part of his pro­ject to craft new and more ap­pro­pri­ate set­tings for these heart­break­ing texts.

“I’ve ac­tu­ally taken the lib­erty to take those lyrics and come up with melodies and chord pro­gres­sions that feel emo­tion­ally con­gru­ent,” says Mcclel­land, who’ll per­form Free­dom Singer with vo­cal­ist Tanika Charles and gui­tarist Noah Walker. “So that’s an in­ter­est­ing thing: how do we main­tain in­tegrity and au­then­tic­ity with our own voices as we meet those old, old voices? It’s not that I want to try to ex­actly du­pli­cate how some­body would have sung in the 1850s; it’s more that I’m try­ing to take those nuggets of truth and res­o­nance and fil­ter them through my own mu­si­cal and cul­tural and so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence of life.”

Free­dom Singer,

Walk­ing into the main gallery of the Mu­seum of Van­cou­ver’s City on Edge: A Cen­tury of Van­cou­ver Ac­tivism ex­hibit, the first thing that hits you is the noise: voices chant­ing “Power!”, cow­bells, and cheers. Join­ing the row­dily im­mer­sive sound­scape are photo and video images of protests and ri­ots of the past 100 years, all flash­ing across 10 big pro­jec­tion screens—a rau­cous col­lage of so­cial un­rest and ac­tivism.

Shots of po­lice march­ing Mac­jacket–clad Clark Park gang mem­bers out of a 1972 Rolling Stones con­cert sit along­side 1922 UBC stu­dent ral­lies against over­crowd­ing, 1980s peace marches, 1993’s Clay­oquot protests, and early-2000s anti-olympics events. A 1907 photo of an­ti­asian demon­stra­tions jux­ta­poses with 1971’s Gas­town Riot and 1994’s in­fa­mous Stan­ley Cup ram­page.

There are 650 images in all, mostly gleaned from old Van­cou­ver Sun and Province archives (many never pub­lished), and the mes­sage is as loud and clear as the slo­gan on a po­lit­i­cal plac­ard: in this city, peo­ple take it to the streets.

Why is it that Van­cou­verites have such a pas­sion for pub­lic protest? Cocu­ra­tor Vi­viane Gos­selin has had many hours to con­tem­plate that, while sift­ing through hun­dreds of images with re­tired Pa­cific News­pa­per Group li­brar­ian Kate Bird.

First off, the plethora of pub­lic protests is a sign of the free­dom and so­cial democ­racy peo­ple feel here, Gos­selin says. “Our abil­ity to take it to the street is not given to ev­ery coun­try of the world,” she ob­serves.

“And then there’s the labour his­tory,” she adds, gesturing to pho­to­graphs that date back to Van­cou­ver’s early years, in­clud­ing a blown-up, blurry 1907 shot of women march­ing

A doc­u­men­tary-theatre pro­ject based on a true voy­age on the Un­der­ground Rail­road, finds new mean­ing in old songs. Dahlia Katz photo.

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