CBMR Digest is a publication of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago

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CBMR Digest

Latest Issue: Fall 2014

ISSN # 2168-3301spring 2013 | Volume 26, No. 1

Black Vocality Symposium

Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles

A Symposium presented by the CBMR, University of Salento, and the Columbia College Department of Music

Columbia College Chicago
Concert Hall, 1014 South Michigan Avenue
September 24–25, 2013

The Center for Black Music Research, the University of Salento, and the Columbia College Department of Music announce the symposium “Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles.” Financed by the European Union’s Marie Curie-International Outgoing Fellowship and curated by Gianpaolo Chiriacò, the symposium will be held at the Columbia College Concert Hall, during September 24–25, 2013.

“Black Vocality: Cultural Memory, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles” will explore the multiple ways in which the singing voice has been used and perceived within the specific context of African-American cultures. African-American vocality, according to several scholars, possesses distinct features that vary from the use of specific timbres and registers to the employment of embellishments and vocal qualities. Their work implies the existence of a distinct vocal aesthetic, based on a culturally informed use of body, rhythm, and language, as well as on interrelations between sounds, vocal intensifiers, and words. A significant goal of the symposium is to analyze these concepts within the context of a wide definition of the African-American vocal aesthetic.

Moreover, each of the aforementioned features is characterized by specific history and practices that have been constantly negotiated through perceptions and racial imagination. The symposium will therefore address topics and issues related to the uses, development, and meanings of black vocality, taking into consideration current interpretations that reconstruct the concept of singing voices through critical analysis of embodiment, language, race, identity, and performativity.

The goal is to position the study of African-American vocal styles within a broader context, where the past and its heritage—here defined as cultural memory—are investigated in their relation to a contemporary scenario. The singing voice will be deemed, among other things, as a means of individual expression, a tool for preserving the traditions, and a vehicle for social and political action.

A musicological and ethnomusicological approach is crucial for such an investigation. Nevertheless, the symposium, by focusing on the concept of vocality, will also challenge categories of sound, identity, vocal personas, and racialized timbres. By promoting a discussion among performers and researchers (both European and American), the symposium will shed light on the collective and individual experiences that have created distinct ways of managing and conceiving vocality.

Black Vocality is designed specifically for scholars and performers, in any field, who grapple with questions related to the use of voice and language, including the limits of normative/extended techniques and styles, issues of memory and improvisation, and questions that are related to cultural identities and philosophy of language. Undergraduate and graduate students of vocal performance, music, literature, and theater will benefit significantly from the symposium’s exploration of the origins and meanings of vocal and performance practices.

The symposium will consist of four sessions, each exploring specific areas of inquiry. Particular attention will be paid to the intersections of genres. The areas covered by the four sessions are:

  • the vocality of gospel and popular music,
  • improvisation and cultural memory,
  • sound poetry and storytelling, and
  • techniques and performing identities among contemporary vocalists.

All symposium sessions and performances are free and open to Columbia College students, faculty, and staff, and to the general public. RSVPs are not necessary, but will be appreciated to facilitate event planning. Please send an RSVP email by September 10 to afrovocality@gmail.com.


The Black Vocality symposium is part of the three-year project ROTVOSCIAME (The Role of Traditional Vocal Styles in Reshaping Cultural Identities Related to African Diasporas in America and Europe). Designed by Gianpaolo Chiriacò, the research is being supported by a Marie Curie-International Outgoing Fellowship, financed by the European Union. The project looks at the history and anthropology of African-American singing styles across genres, and it aims to provide an interdisciplinary analysis of the different developments and connotations of vocality within the African diasporas.

Following contemporary investigations related to voice studies, the singing voice is considered as a complex means of expression (not only a musical instrument nor just a vehicle for the language), as the ultimate locus where cultural connections still exist, operate, and evolve. During the symposium, the activities of the first year of the project will also be presented, and perspectives and results will be shared and discussed.

Monica Hairston O'Connell
Monica Hairston O’Connell
Gianpaolo Chiriacò
Gianpaolo Chiriacò
Patrick Dailey
Patrick Dailey
Alisha Lola Jones
Alisha Lola Jones
Nathan Bakkum
Nathan Bakkum
Bobbi Wilsyn
Bobbi Wilsyn
Fabrizia Barresi
Fabrizia Barresi
Sage Morgan-Hubbard
Sage Morgan-Hubbard
Stacy Rene Erenberg
Stacy Rene Erenberg
Maggie Brown
Maggie Brown
Tim’m West
Tim’m West
Mankwe Ndosi
Mankwe Ndosi
Pamela Z
Pamela Z

Preliminary Program (subject to change without notice)

Tuesday, September 24

8–9 a.m.
REGISTRATION (coffee will be served)

9–9:45 a.m.
Black Voices in North America and Europe

Monica Hairston O’Connell (Executive Director, Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago). Reflections on Black Voices in a Post Post-Racial Era.

Gianpaolo Chiriacò (University of Salento, CBMR Resident Fellow). I Sing Forever: Perceptions and Performances of a Black Vocality.

10 a.m.–noon
Gospel Vocality, Identity, and Popular Music
Alisha Lola Jones (University of Chicago, PhD candidate in ethnomusicology), session chair.

Session I will explore the various connections between what can be considered as an African-American vocality, with roots in gospel, and the broader field of popular music. Questions related to gender, identity, religion, and performance practices of specific vocal styles (e.g., melisma, falsetto) will be addressed.

Patrick Dailey (Boston University, School of Music). The Anatomy of a Black Voice: Peculiarities, Challenges, Regional Differences.

Katherine Meizel (Bowling Green State University, College of Musical Arts). Making the Song Your Own: Discourses of Race, Authenticity, and Melisma in the Twenty-First Century Pop Voice.

Alisha Lola Jones (University of Chicago, PhD candidate in ethnomusicology), Gendered Sound and Black Vocal Performances in Contemporary Gospel.

1:30–2:30 p.m.
All symposium participants are invited to visit the CBMR and the CBMR Library and Archives, located at 618 South Michigan Avenue, 6th floor.

3–5 p.m.
Talkative Ancestors: Improvisation and Cultural Memory
Nathan Bakkum (Columbia College Chicago, Department of Music), session chair.

Session II will address the different ways in which cultural memory (languages, traditions, sounds, religions, etc.) interacts with a spontaneous creativity in the extemporaneous act of vocal improvisation. Presenters will draw from their experiences as performers and teachers in order to describe this interrelation.

Bobbi Wilsyn (Columbia College Chicago, Department of Music). The Soul of a Jazz Singer: Recollection and Response.

Fabrizia Barresi (vocal performer and vocal teacher, Paris). Multilingualism as a Source of Inspiration.

Wednesday, September 25

9–10 a.m. REGISTRATION (coffee will be served)

10 a.m.–noon
SESSION III Words and Sound—Poetry and Storytelling.
Sage Morgan-Hubbard (Columbia College Chicago, Department of Dance), session chair.

Session III will focus on how words might be used in creative ways as a source of multiple meanings and as sounds, during a performance and beyond. Presenters will explain their main influences and how their techniques are rooted in an ancient heritage. Qualities related to the sound of voices will be discussed from the point of view of poets, singers, and storytellers, all within African-American traditions.

Sage Morgan-Hubbard (Columbia College Chicago, Department of Dance) and Stacy Rene Erenberg (Chicago State University). Sounds of Words: Within and without the Language.

Maggie Brown (vocal performer, Chicago). Creating a Personal Story: Songs and Narratives.

Tim’m West (poet, performer, and activist, Chicago). Deceptions of Old Glory: Hip-Hop as a Critique of Memory, Nostalgia, and Nationality.

2–4 p.m.
Beyond Textuality: Black Music and Extended Vocal Techniques
Gianpaolo Chiriacò (University of Salento, CBMR), session chair.

Session IV will investigate the concept of a black avant garde in relation to vocal styles and techniques, from the specific perspective of two accomplished female vocalists and composers. The discussion will be rooted in the way their work reflects a broad sense of identity, as well as a profound social consciousness.

Mankwe Ndosi (vocal performer and activist, Minneapolis). Question the Frames/Activate the Everyday: Vocal Creativity and Its Resources.

Pamela Z (performer and composer, San Francisco). The Art of Performing: Voice, Body, Electronics.

7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.)

Mankwe Ndosi (vocal performer and activist, Minneapolis).
Pamela Z (performer and composer, San Francisco).

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