Celebrating African-Americans in Valley

  • Youssoupha Sidibe will perform at “A Legacy of African American Music, People and Place” at 4 p.m. June 19. Contributed photo

  • Storyteller Gina Beavers will perform at “A Legacy of African American Music, People, and Place,” an artistic production which highlights the history of African-Americans in the Pioneer Valley.

  • A photo of an African-American family in Ashfield, from the Howes Brothers collection, taken circa mid- to late-1800s.

For the Gazette
Thursday, June 02, 2016

DEERFIELD — Gil Roberts played jazz banjo on the back porch of the Lord Jeffrey Inn; Napthalo sang at the Sunderland Church during the Great Awakening; Angeline found refuge in Colrain after escaping from Amherst.

These, and others like them, are the stories about the African-American experience in the Pioneer Valley that will be told at 4 p.m. June 19 in Old Deerfield’s Brick Church.

The church holds about 400 people.

The performance will be a culmination of the collaborative efforts of more than a dozen seasoned and amateur musicians, who will come together to relate stories in the performance “A Legacy of African American Music, People and Place.”

“It’s the way old stories and music stays alive,” said Jacqueline Cooper, creator, researcher and director of the artistic project. “I just got tired of people’s stories getting lost.”

Cooper has put on other collaborative performances similar to the legacy performance in the past.

Starting June 11, musicians who have applied to participate in the performance will meet together and learn the musical arrangements of the piece over the course of about a week. Three mentors, Lui Collins, a folk singer, songwriter and educator; Doug Tanner, a longtime musical performer who plays many different instruments; and renowned gospel singer Moonlight Davis will help the musicians learn the music.

Davis said one reason the project will be interesting is that the performers don’t know what parts they will play. Instead, the process will be organic and unpredictable.

“Other than the fact that I’m gonna give it my best energy, I don’t know what will come of it,”  he said. “I think it’ll be a surprise for all of us.”

Their efforts will come together in the performance, which features storytelling by Gina Beavers and music by Youssoupha Sidibe.

According to a news release, “the journey begins with memories of the ancestral West African homelands, where daily life included tribal music of Senegal and Gambia tied to the passing of seasons, as well as traditional griot storytelling music.”

“In general, everyone — we are all misled by what we believe to be general history,” said Davis. “There are many things left out or not even mentioned. It’s part of an untold story that needs to be told.”

Viewers of the performance can expect to experience African-American history here in the Connecticut River Valley, as told through 14 stories of the people who lived it, beginning in 1700 and ending in the 1920s.

“The fact that (the stories) are about local people makes it personal,” Cooper said. “It’s a legacy.”

As of now, only one performance is scheduled. But Cooper said she would not be opposed to holding more, similar performances, if there is enough funding.