Review: Slavery & Song, St Andrew’s & St George’s West

Slavery and SongThe concept of this show seemed brilliant. Obviously, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gone. And although it takes quite a lot to get me into a church, Slavery & Song: New insights into the songs of slavery sounded like the kind of event where I could learn a lot, particularly since my knowledge of US slave music is more or less limited to Paul Robeson singing Ol’ Man River and I’m pretty sure that that doesn’t count. On top of that the poster announced that the songs would be performed by the Choir of St Andrew’s and St George’s West and the Edinburgh Signing Choir (both in equal font size if I may add). Songs about slavery in British Sign Language (BSL)? Bring it on!

… and take it away again. It turned out that the Edinburgh Signing Choir was there to perform the first song. Full stop. The only three deaf people in the audience, who were sitting near me, started signing animatedly after the next songs were only sung in English (with the lyrics projected on stage) and the minister started talking, without a sign language interpreter or the intention of stopping any time soon. They had expected more involvement of the Signing Choir, were disappointed and left. After the event I found out that originally there were going to be three signed songs but due to organisational problems the first song, Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen, was all there was.

Now, I’m not sure why the Signing Choir was there in the first place. I was expecting some engagement with Deaf history, Deaf culture, or at least the BSL performance. Renowned Deaf scholar Paddy Ladd has written a huge book on the colonisation of deaf people and their culture, so I think my expectation was reasonable. Unfortunately the engagement was limited to one sentence about how beautiful the performance was, accompanied by enthusiastic applause from the hearing audience. How people who don’t know sign language can judge the quality of a BSL performance I don’t know.

I know what you’re going to say. “That’s a very niche complaint you’ve got there. What about the rest of the evening?”. Well. Again, the concept was brilliant. The minister and his wife had recently travelled around the US, interviewing prominent black people about slavery and the music connected with it, so the evening was the opportunity to present what they had learnt. They had interviewed fascinating people, such as Joycelyn Elders, the first black Surgeon General of the US. The problem was that I couldn’t exactly feel their presence. There were no photos, no recordings of the interviews. All talks were given by white people, to the extent that a whole section of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech was read out by an older Scottish gentleman, even though projectors were used throughout the event so it would’ve been easy to show the original speech which is right here on youtube.

There was one black person onstage, Andrea Baker, a “British-American mezzo soprano” the leaflet reliably informed me. I don’t know the first thing about music, so I will say that I enjoyed her performance and leave my review at that. But the songs sung by the church choir sounded like they came straight from the hymn book in front of me on the pew. If somebody better informed than me tells me my views are based on romanticised Hollywood notions of what slave songs sound like then I’m happy to take that criticism, but I felt like the lifeblood had somewhat been sucked out of these songs by the Sunday mass style performance.

Overall, the evening felt like one big missed opportunity. The songs were put in context through stories and interviews, but there was no coherent point. The minister made a brief reference to Ferguson and, later on, to the British involvement in the slave trade (by brief I mean one and three sentences respectively) only to come to the conclusion that slavery was bad and still is, which he underlined with an excerpt from this TED talk. There was no mention of the way religion was used to enforce slavery (not a big surprise though, given the setting) or of the aftereffects that 13% of US citizens still suffer today. I left wanting an awful lot more.

Tanja Jacobs