With Barnwell, a harmonic convergence comes to town

Raise those voices

The Thanksgiving Community Sing with Ysaye Barnwell is 7 p.m. next Friday (Nov. 29) at RAAC Community Theatre, Washington. Tickets are $20 ($10 ages 16 and younger), available online at bit.ly/ysaye13. Call 540-322-2022 or email info@kidpanalley.org for more information.

If you’d prefer raising your voice in songs you already know by heart, Trinity Episcopal Church’s old-fashioned sing-along is tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 22) at 7 p.m. in the parish hall, with wine and cheese; the benefit (donations are voluntary but much appreciated) supports the Food Pantry. For more details, contact Kay Wilson at kaymwilson@gmail.com.

If disharmony is killing you, you’ll want to have a session with Dr. Barnwell.

Normally, you’d have to travel to that other Washington — the place where some believe disharmony was invented, and certainly where it gets the most headlines these days — to attend one of Ysaye Barnwell’s monthly sessions.

They’re called Community Sings, and they’re generally held at the Levine School, for anyone who feels like singing — in six- or seven-part harmony — with people who are, more often than not, strangers.

The whole point being that they are not, generally, still strangers when the songs are over.

“I get rewarded every time I engage in one of these things,” says Barnwell, who’ll be leading one of “these things” — in this case to benefit Rappahannock’s Kid Pan Alley organization — at 7 p.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29) at the RAAC Community Theatre, in our own little Washington. “I get to see the joy on people’s faces, and to hear the things that people say to me as they’re leaving,” she says, “particularly when they’ve come for the first time.”

Participation in a Community Sing — or the multi-day workshops called “Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition” that Barnwell’s now conducted on three continents — requires neither formal training in music, nor the ability to read music. Says Barnwell, 66, who recently retired after 30 years with the internationally acclaimed a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock: “I’ll sing a line. You sing it back. It goes from there.”

Ysaye Barnwell, left, teaches participants their parts by singing them herself.
Ysaye Barnwell, left, teaches participants their parts by singing them herself. Courtesy photo

It sounds simple, and it is simple — people raising their voices together in harmony — but the effects are powerful. “The reality is,” says Barnwell, “there are health benefits, mental health and physical health, when people sing together, where vibrations are set into motion . . . and they have to interact in a whole ’nother level to make the music work well.”

At Levine, Barnwell says, “a hundred people or more show up most months — a third of whom come all the time and who have come since the beginning, a third when they can and a third brand new. My intention is to make people feel comfortable and give them a place to share and blend their voices with other people’s.” Much of the songs are out of African and African-American traditions, but not all of them.

“And there are no requirements,” she says, “except to show up.”

“When I started,” she says, “music was not the profession that I thought I was going into. I got my doctorate [from the University of Pittsburgh] in cranio-facial studies, a post-doctorate in public health. I taught at Howard University dental college for 12 years.”

In the mid-’70s, Barnwell sang at All Souls Church, Unitarian, a Washington institution known as much for its choir as its urban-landmark status at 16th and Harvard NW. “The choir rehearsed at 9:30 Monday morning,” she says, and if you wanted to sing in church, you had to make those rehearsals.

“I started a choir there because there were people who wanted to sing who didn’t feel comfortable [reading music] and couldn’t make that 9:30 kind of thing. That choir [the Jubilee Singers] is now celebrating 36 years — and that was the beginning for me of working with people in the oral tradition.”

Barnwell has served on the board of Kid Pan Alley, the nonprofit founded by Rappahannock composer and performer Paul Reisler to bring songwriting skills — and many of those aforementioned benefits of harmony — into the hands of schoolchildren. Around Thanksgiving, if she’s available, she will drive out and do a Community Sing for Kid Pan Alley in the community where it started.

“Songs bring communities together,” says Reisler, who’s known Barnwell for 30-plus years, “whether it’s children writing brand new songs to express how they’re feeling, or all of us singing the songs of our ancestors. Ysaye brings everyone together.”

“We’re in a circle,” she says of the Sing, “so people can see the joy that they’re creating. I put people into sections so they can hear what’s going on with other people singing their parts. It’s very relaxed kind of environment, where people who may or may not know each other very quickly find themselves breathing the same air and singing in harmony. I feel it’s a metaphor. There are many metaphors, actually. People take away what they need.”

Barnwell hears just one complaint, she says: “It’s usually, ‘And why can’t we do this more often?’ ”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.