Honoring, and crediting, a rich musical heritage

Brattleboro Women’s Chorus celebrates Mother’s Day with a concert featuring songs by composers of the African diaspora

BRATTLEBORO-The Brattleboro Women's Chorus spring concert, "Better Days," will showcase powerful and poignant songs by composers hailing from the African diaspora and will feature Brattleboro's own Samirah Evans as guest soloist.

According to Graber, the concert, which takes place on Sunday, May 12, at the Latchis Theatre, was inspired by the teachings and repertoire of singer and composer Ysaÿe Barnwell and the work of the Black Lives Matter Commissioning Project.

"The chorus aims to honor the rich cultural heritage and musical contributions of composers of African descent who may have been underrepresented or unnamed in traditional choral settings," says Graber.

This year's concert will specifically honor the compositions and teachings of Barnwell, who "inspires both my teaching style and our repertoire," she adds.

Barnwell, a longtime member of the African American a cappella women's ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, "had the belief that everybody can sing, everybody does sing and everybody should sing," Graber adds. "There was never a question that someone should be shuffled off to the side. I wanted to be that way as well."

Music, Graber says, "has the power to bridge cultures, foster understanding, and evoke deep emotions. Through this concert, we hope to celebrate the talent and creativity of the brilliant composers who have created and crafted many of the songs we sing."

The program will feature a selection of songs, ranging from traditional spirituals arranged by Rollo Dilworth and Barnwell, to contemporary compositions by Barnwell, Abbey Lincoln, Cassandra Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Bobby McFerrin, "each chosen for its ability to resonate with audiences and convey themes of resilience, hope, love, and unity," according to the chorus' publicity materials.

Accompanying Evans will be a band of regional musicians created just for this concert: Cathy Martin on piano, Steve Rice on drums, Genevieve Rose on bass, and Ronald Smith on saxophone.

Honoring a rich cultural heritage

A $5,000 grant from the Thomas Thompson Trust supported this concert and rehearsals and allowed the Chorus time to explore more deeply the context of the African-American experience and the roots of the music being sung.

"We asked: How can a mostly white chorus in a mostly white state honor the composers of the African diaspora?" notes Graber.

They learned from two African American women who have made careers of teaching and contextualizing a rich musical heritage.

Group members participated in workshops led by Kathy Bullock and Melanie DeMore, "talking with us about the history of Africans in America and talking about their music in depth," Graber says.

In a 2001 interview with Works & Conversations, DeMore credited her time with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir with inspiring her commitment to teaching and performing music as a full-body activity.

"We specialized in African-American roots music, folk music - music from the Gullah South Sea Islands, old slave songs, moans, all of those things," DeMore said. "Part of our mission was the preservation of that."

DeMore, who describes herself as a "vocal activist," came from California to teach a workshop with the BWC. Graber describes her as a "a wonderfully welcoming singer and leader."

"Kathy Bullock's workshop took us through the history of African American music and talked about enslavement," she continues.

Bullock, a professor emerita of music at Berea College in Kentucky with a rich background in music performance, direction, and scholarship, has been a visiting faculty member at Bennington College.

"She told the real stories, and it was hard to hear but so important to hear," Graber said.

Building community through music

When she was 5 years old and growing up in Minnesota, Graber learned to read music at the same time she learned to read words.

She credits her mother, a salesperson of the World Book encyclopedia who designed a component of the company's homeschooling curriculum to give Grabar those skills at such an early age.

"That was such a kindness to me that I hadn't thanked her for, since she's gone," noted Graber, who is ramping up for the 28th year of the Brattleboro Women's Chorus.

She reflects on the early days of the group.

"I was looking for a way to have local work that was meaningful and to build community for myself and others," she says. "I wanted to bring people together to sing. I love to do that."

In those first few months of 1996, the Brattleboro Women's Chorus attracted 55 singers. This year, 108 voices will participate.

Betsy Williams of Westminster West, a board member and chorus singer, joined the BWC "in the midst of a big snowstorm."

In the early winter of 1996, she attended the BWC's first concert at what then was the First Baptist Church downtown.

"I enjoyed the concert, and it all looked like so much fun, I decided to join," Williams says. "And, well, I have been a member ever since!"

She describes Graber's qualities as musical director as "a rare gift."

"She welcomes all singers, regardless of previous musical experience, and is able to lead rehearsals in a manner that meets people where they are - while also providing helpful information and direction to those with more musical background," Williams says.

She describes the spring program as "a particularly high level of power and connection, embracing that we are all a part of this grand community of music together, generated through a shared history that shows humanity at its worst and its best."

"I feel honored to be able to be a part of that," adds Williams.

Norma Willingham, 71, of Brattleboro, a board member and member of BWC, joined the chorus that first fall and, similar to Williams' introduction, "walked a mile in an intense snowstorm to perform," though it was not the same snowstorm as her board colleague endured.

"I was hooked," she says.

"Singing with the Women's Chorus was an uplifting experience where I joined my voice in community, singing songs of hope, joy, and inspiration," says Willingham.

She says that her singing voice has "changed dramatically thanks to Becky's frequent, quick lessons on how we can use our voices in a different way."

But for Willingham, it's about more than the technique.

"Singing always makes me happy, but nowhere else am I quite as happy as singing with Becky. I have had the pleasure of watching Becky hone her skills to become the most amazing musical director," she continues.

"With good humor, she helps a group of amateurs learn about using their voices to become one voice," adds Willingham to the chorus of praise for Graber.

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The Brattleboro Women's Chorus Mother's Day concert takes place at the Latchis Theatre, 50 Main St., on Sunday, May 12 at 3 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased at the door on the day of the event. The cost is on a sliding scale of $15 to $30, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

For more information about the Brattleboro Women's Chorus or to purchase tickets, visit

This Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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