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Back in Black
Langston Hughes plus Aaron Robinson equals good times at Immanuel Baptist Church

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was known as the "Poet Laureate of Harlem," a title he encouraged. He played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, with his poetry and literature influencing those beyond the African-Americans in New York. Hughes wanted to capture the common experiences of Black America in his writing. He wrote to tell the stories of people living, dying, suffering, and loving. In 1961, Hughes wrote the gospel song-play Black Nativity. This work combines traditional Christmas Gospel music with original poetry. A 60-voice choir will be performing this work on December 12 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Portland, under the direction of IBC musical director Aaron Robinson, who describes the poetry as dark, heavy, and serious.

Robinson organized the first production of Black Nativity in 2001 using only the members of his church choir — about 23 singers. Audiences filled the church for that first performance and the word spread. This year, Robinson invited singers from various groups to join his church choir. Singers from Choral Arts Society, Oratorio Chorale, Port Opera, area theaters, and the University of Southern Maine will be participating.

"It’s amazing, because the people that I didn’t think would be interested in it were the first to answer," Robinson says. "It’s just been so wonderful because they’ve come to it really wanting to learn to sing in a different way from what they’ve been doing."

So at this point you might be thinking, "Do I really want to go hear a bunch of Mainers trying to sing gospel?" The answer is yes. Here’s why.

You probably aren’t oblivious to the racial demographics of the greater-Portland area. Maine isn’t an exact microcosm of the melting pot that the United States as a whole can boast. But being invested in African-American culture is not essential to performing or to enjoying this production. Langston Hughes’s poetry is what really tied Black Nativity to African-American culture, and Robinson’s production won’t be including the poetry. Instead of the poetry carrying the nativity story, passages from the gospels in the Bible will be read. What is left, then of the original production, is only the music — Christmas spirituals that have been in the public domain for a long time and have been adopted by choirs everywhere.

Aaron Robinson explains to me the different types of gospel music. "When you think gospel or you think spiritual, you think either a cappella African-American choirs singing ‘Swing Low’ and negro spirituals from working in the fields. Or, you think gospel in the present day where Mariah Carey’s taking a solo going all over, and she’s got back up going ‘yeah, yeah.’ That’s praise gospel. Neither of those is what we’re going for."

There will be no Mariah Carey wannabes at Immanuel Baptist. The pieces used in Black Nativity are Christmas spirituals, gospel spirituals spirited by the gospels in the bible. "These have nothing to do with heritage . . . nothing to do with being in the fields or being slaves. Those are Negro spirituals. These are gospel spirituals," Robinson clarifies.

Although Robinson held gospel singing workshops for his singers, he says there is only one thing to keep in mind. The music has to pour out of your soul, ooze out of your being. "This is such joyful music. If it’s not flowing out of you, then you’re not singing it properly."

Yes, there is a difference between what these singers normally sing and the gospel spirituals of Black Nativity. The hundreds of years of Western music teaches you about certain things, says Robinson. You internalize where the accents fall and what happens to long chords as a choir holds them. For choirs used to singing Handel and Beethoven, accents fall on beats one and three. But in gospel spirituals, the off-beats are stressed.

"It’s funny. When we have our concerts here [he laughs], the audience, which is 99 percent white, immediately starts clapping on one and three. And I taught the choir to clap on two and four." What resulted was claps on every beat of the measure, which gave the music a humorously militaristic feel.

There is very little literature on the original production of Black Nativity in 1961. Langston Hughes biographies barely mention his gospel song-plays. Omission of the poetry obviously detracts from the historical authenticity of Robinson’s rendition, but one thing that will remain the same is the accompaniment. A piano and B3 Hammond Organ will be the only instruments played with the singers. Robinson will play the piano and Paul Havenstein II will be on organ. The B3 has a speaker to amplify the sound which produces the unique timbre often associated with gospel music.

Robinson and Havenstein won’t have traditional scores in front of them for one simple reason. A score of Black Nativity doesn’t exist — the original production was mostly improvised. Robinson wanted to perform the music, so he transcribed the whole thing, all 40 minutes of choral music with accompaniment. That’s quite a task.

Robinson says of his production of Black Nativity, "99 percent of this is complete entertainment. People go away with a wonderful feeling because it’s very spirited. But for one brief moment in the play, it all calms down. A soprano sings ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ and it gives you a little bit extra. Then we’re right back into the clapping."

Hopefully on two and four.

Becca DeWan can be reached at beccadewan@mac.com

Black Nativity is at Immanuel Baptist Church, in Portland, Dec. 12. Call (207) 879-0071 x3.

Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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