IF YOU GO
What: Thanksgiving Community Sing (fundraiser for Kid Pan Alley) with Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
When and Where: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26 at RAAC Community Theatre, 310 Gay St., Washington.
Tickets are $20, $10 ages 15 and younger. For reservations, call 540-675-3193 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit raac.org.
Dr. Ysaye Barnwell of the renowned a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform a “Community Sing” at the RAAC Community Theatre Nov. 26 as a fundraiser for Kid Pan Alley, a children’s songwriting workshop established by local resident and musician Paul Reisler.
Born and raised in New York City and a longtime resident of Washington, D.C., Barnwell said in a telephone interview using her rich, resonant voice that she started learning violin at age two-and-a-half from her father, a professional violinist. “Music is a significant part of the world,” Barnwell reflected.
At age 12, Barnwell’s life changed forever when her parents took her to a Broadway production of “The Miracle Worker,” the life story of Helen Keller. Barnwell became riveted with the challenges of the deaf, she said, and committed herself to a doctoral degree in speech pathology. She later administered health programs at Galludet University, where she learned sign language for the deaf.
In 1979, Barnwell joined Sweet Honey in the Rock, then at the close of its sixth year, and continues to perform 50 to 60 concerts with the group annually. She signed for the deaf at one show, she said, but found it was too much to sing simultaneously. However, Barnwell is responsible for the group’s practice of making its concerts accessible to interpretation for the deaf.
While occasionally caught up in “the drudgery of how to make [the art] happen,” Barnwell said, “the thrill of creating music on stage with four other women and having an audience respond” is what she lives for.
Barnwell met Reisler, then with Trapezoid, the folk group he founded, in 1980 and she agreed to coach the group vocally. She and Reisler have been friends since. Barnwell currently sits on the board of Kid Pan Alley.
Impressed with “how music can bring people together,” Barnwell said she began “Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition” workshops that last anywhere between three hours to five days.
But it was Reisler’s late wife, Julie Portman, who suggested Barnwell conduct her very special “Community Sing” program in Rappahannock. Normally, it was a monthly show she only did at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C.
Barnwell leads the two-hour “Community Sing” in the “oral tradition” — she sings to the group, they sing back — omitting the need for reading music or musical training, while allowing the audience to sing in a choir in four to eight part harmony.
For the past several years, she has directed these community choirs the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“I’m really glad I can help Kid Pan Alley,” Barnwell said. “It’s a jewel in the county here” that needs support to blossom.
“Ysaye’s ‘Community Sing’ taps into that great river of song that holds us together as community,” Reisler said. “She gently pushes us into that river, even if we don’t think we can swim very well.”
“To whom much is given, much is required,” is one significant axiom in Barnwell’s life. It is one she lives by, giving back to society using the talents with which she has been blessed.