Birmingham acappella quintet BLACK VOICES have a long and proud history. Tony Cummings reports.
In the States one of the longest established black female groups are Sweet Honey In The Rock. They have blazed a trail with the soulful sounds of female acappella music while demonstrating an expansive repertoire which as well as their roots-gospel music today takes in freedom songs, women's rights material and African traditionalism. In the UK, the British scene has a long established group of Afro Caribbean singers who have taken a very similar musical, spiritual and socio-political path. Black Voices were formed in Birmingham in 1987. Then two friends, singer Carol Pemberton and manager Bob Ramdhanie, formed the first Black Voices. To quote from the group's website, Black Voices were "grounded in the black church presenting acappella both sacred and secular which was always challenging and entertaining." Over the years Black Voices made changes to their line up but retained an unerring ability to create "beautiful voice music." Said Carol Pemberton, "We have been to every continent from Australia to Brazil, America, all over Europe, China, Singapore - we've been everywhere really. It's easier to say where we haven't been than to say where we have been and we just enjoy travelling to different places, sharing our music. In the main it includes gospel, blues, pop, spiritual, reggae. It's got a distinctly British flavour about it because we were all born here. Our parents come from different islands in the Caribbean."
The group, currently consisting of Sandra Francis, Shereece Storrod, Celia Anderson, Evon Nelson and musical director Carol Pemberton, have down the years recorded six albums. Their repertoire is stunningly eclectic, from ancient spirituals to Caribbean folk songs and from "Greensleeves" to Bob Marley tunes. Said Carol, "Our repertoire is over 300 songs so we are always challenging ourselves to try new avenues in terms of delivering voice music."
The group has had lots of mass media exposure, including its own acappella series with BBC Radio 2 and numerous TV appearances. Currently, the group operates as a professional collective, researching and rehearsing with five to nine members, but maintaining its tradition of performing as a quintet. The vision of the company has strengthened over the past few years." Supported by the Arts Council Black Voices today provides a wide range of creative opportunities in music and music technology from a centre in Birmingham. Pivotal in much of Black Voices' activities are their groundbreaking workshops where singers experienced and inexperienced can discover the joys of the human voice. Said Carol, "I think that because of the way we design our workshops a lot of kids are a bit apprehensive at first, especially when they have got to sing in front of people they are probably not accustomed to, but because the music we teach is quite infectious and it's constructed in such a way that children can sing harmonies in a very short space of time without even realising. It sounds good straight away so I think that builds confidence in the children you know, to probably sing a bit louder than they normally would and we have such fun doing it. It includes a bit of movement. Sometimes it includes a bit of rap, they introduce the pieces themselves and we try to give them a broad spectrum.
"We bring gospel, pop gospel, funky things, songs from Africa or around the world that they haven't probably attempted before and they have great fun doing it. We do want to make singing a fun activity. We don't want to make it sort of boring and laborious. So we try to do energetic things that get the kids there up and full of energy all the time."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.