Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, “Culture Bearer”
As a composer, singer, teacher and author, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell has a full palette to choose from when she wants to share her love of culture.
“Culture bearer,” for me, implies a person who has consciously embodied culture and is in the process of transmitting it. I never thought I would be that person but I have spent a lot of years looking at the evolution of music from Africa to the present in African-American culture.
Most of my time is spent as a musician. I’ve been singing with a group called Sweet Honey in the Rock™ for the past 30-plus years and also composing and arranging all kinds of music. The Fortune’s-Bones cantata that will be performed at the Center in February 2012 is one of my compositions.
I have spent a lot of years looking at the evolution of music from Africa to the present in African-American culture.
Every time I sing and create harmonies with Sweet Honey in the Rock™ it’s a blessing. We can create songs about anything. What’s going on in the world, there’s always something to write about. And because of the kind of group that we are, there’s always a chance to reach back and to utilize songs that came even from slavery and sing them in a brand new fresh context and help people understand this connection between the past and the present and carry the culture forward.
Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem makes that connection, too, and it’s one of those projects where my whole self comes together — my health background, my music and many other things.
My professional background is in speech pathology with a doctorate in cranial-facial studies and also a post-doctoral degree in public health. My personal background — I’m named after a violinist. My father was a violinist; he taught violin, viola and piano for over 60 years and so he started me with violin at two-and-a-half. Then when I was 12 years old I went to see The Miracle Worker on Broadway and instantly, because of that theatrical piece, not only did I learn that there was a Helen Keller in the world but I also learned about her teacher, Annie Sullivan. I wanted to be a miracle worker. That was really what led me into the field of speech pathology.
I wanted to be a miracle worker. That was really what led me into the field of speech pathology.
What excites me? Life. sounds. Just getting together with people and talking. And the possibility that you can create change — that excites me a lot. It’s not something I walk around thinking about but when it occurs I realize, “Wow, this is some magic that’s happened just now.”
The performance of Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem is very, very exciting to me and I’m glad that I have the opportunity to do it. If you create something and it’s something that is supposed to be shared, to be in the place at the time when it’s being shared is a wonderful experience. Yeah.