Geneseo alumna educates campus on African music traditions in community sing event

Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell ‘67 (pictured above) hosted a community sing on Tuesday Feb. 27 in the MacVittie College Union ballroon in memory of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Barnwell taught the audience members music distinct to African culture in a comfortable and collaborative environment. (Catherine White/Arts & Entertainment Editor)

The MacVittie College Union ballroom was teeming with lively chants and singing on Tuesday Feb. 27 at a special Community Sing event hosted by composer, singer and Geneseo alumna Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell ’67, who also earned her master’s at Geneseo in ’68. 

Open to students, faculty and the general public, Barnwell’s event was in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. 

The community sing was prefaced by “A Collison of Worldviews” interview with Barnwell on Monday Feb. 26 in the MacVittie College Union ballroom.

When Barnwell attended Geneseo in the 1960s, she was one of the eight African American students enrolled at the institution. The class of 2021 still only consists of 2.7 percent African American students compared to the 75.8 percent Caucasian students, according to Geneseo’s website.

History and black studies double major sophomore Michele-lane Detouche presented an introduction for Barnwell, and connected to Barnwell in a personal way. 

“The biggest parallel between Dr. Barnwell and I is that we both harness a consciousness on what it means to be black,” Detouche said. “So as I navigate through Geneseo, I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which my experiences contribute to my body, mind and spirit. And I only hope that I’m able to find and stay on the path that Dr. Barnwell paved for me and others that look like me at Geneseo.”

Barnwell was in the process of getting her master’s degree at Geneseo when King was assassinated, influencing her to work at Howard University to be among a more diverse community.

Upon entering the community sing, guests were asked whether they were a tenor or a soprano. The audience was then divided into two sections based on their vocal range—tenors sitting on the right and sopranos sitting on the left. 

One instruction Barnwell gave was informing the audience on singing an African chant of the indigenous Pygmy people. The Pygmies are an ethnic group mostly based in Sub-Saharan Africa, who partake in an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In the evenings, they are known to sing chants that can be heard from miles away.

“I cannot tell you what [the chant] means,” Barnwell said. “[The Pygmies] have millions of chants that have sounds like these. If you’re miles away, you’ll think the sounds are coming from insects.”

The chant had the sopranos singing a yodel-like melody, while the tenors chanted a drum-like rhythm underneath. After instructing the audience on the correct pitches and pronunciations, Barnwell had the sopranos split into three groups, turning the chant into a round.

Next, Barnwell taught the audience how to sing an African spiritual song, “All Night, All Day.” After learning the lyrics, the audience was instructed to sing the same lyrics at different pitches based on their vocal range. Spiritual music is defined as any song created by African Americans during the period of slavery, including songs about cooking, God, escaping and children.

“When African people came to this country, most of them didn’t decide that work was spiritual,” Barnwell said. “Everything God created is spiritual. Thus, the music made by slaves was considered spiritual.”

Undeclared major freshman Mariellen Penzer was impressed with the new experiences the community sing brought to Geneseo. 

“It was really nice to see a different point of view than we usually see here,” Pencer said. “It was very uplifting and interesting to see a part of the African American culture that we wouldn’t usually see before.”

Barnwell’s community sing and interview was a success, with a huge turnout and collaborative participation from the audience. The community sing demonstrated the educational impact of an interactive event.


Assistant arts and entertainment editor Nicole Callahan contributed reporting to this article.