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Charleston singers keep spiritual, oral traditions alive

Oct 2, 2011, 5:22 p.m.

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - At an historic African American Episcopal Church in Charleston, the Mt. Zion Spiritual Singers keep alive a century-old tradition -- singing unpublished Negro spirituals passed down orally and accompanied only by hand clapping and foot stomping.

"We call it the Charleston clap," Alphonso Brown, leader of the 18-member group, told an audience during a recent performance for a festival of African American culture. "It's an art form."

Brown said he formed the group more than a decade ago after hearing a performance by the local, mostly white, Society for the Preservation of Spirituals.

"They were so good, it made me mad," he said with a grin. A music educator and organist, he also owns and operates Gullah Tours, a tour company focusing on the history of black Charleston residents.

Dressed in suits, hats and shawls, members of the group recreated the African American "praise house" meetings of the early 20th-century rural South in the sanctuary of the Mt. Zion church, whose congregation first formed in 1882.

"This style of music would never have been done in the 1930s or 1940s in a church like Mt. Zion, or any elite black church," Brown said during a rehearsal.

"It was considered raggy music, slave songs," he said. "It was done in rural parts. They were singing the same old songs that slaves and free blacks sang before and after the Civil War. Slaves made them up. They had creativity. They didn't have the manuscript paper to write them down."

CALL-AND-RESPONSE

In call-and response style, with natural harmonies and improvised shouts, the choir performed such songs listed in the program as "Hab yuh got 'lidgun" (Have you got religion), "W'en dah tray'n cuum 'long" (When the train comes along) and "O Zyunn, Wah de mattuh now?" (O, Zion, what's the matter now?).

They sang in Gullah, the language developed by West African slaves brought to Charleston starting in the late 1600s and preserved on South Carolina and Georgia sea islands.

Gullah, a word believed to come from Sierra Leone's Gola tribe, also describes the speakers, often descendants of those slaves who brought their rice-growing skills to this coast.

The language is still spoken by some, including Brown. He grew up going to Tuesday- and Thursday-night "prays" meetings, as he said it was spelled in the old days.

"Tuesday night, prayer meeting," he said. "Thursday night, experience night, where you sing a song and testify."

Singer Sylvia Murray, a retired nurse, said: "When you sing these songs, you get a feeling. What was going on when this song came up?"

Sometimes, "the songs get to you," Brown said.

"We had a situation with a fellow named Kevin one time. Kevin sang his song and he got the spirit. I get up and shake him and I said, 'Hold it together, Kevin. These people ain't paying no $15 to hear you get the Holy Ghost.'"

The group performs around the Southeast, at conventions and festivals. Some members also sing in the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir, which will tour Ghana in March.

They are area natives, with the exception of Hezekiah Kithcart, 81, a retired Army linguist, who moved to Charleston years ago from Gastonia, North Carolina.

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