Nathaniel Dett Chorale brings Voices of the African Diaspora to York U.


TORONTO, February 24, 2003 -- The thrilling 20-voice Nathaniel Dett Chorale, directed by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, will present a special concert, "Voices of the Diaspora: Canciones de Cuba", in partnership with the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University on February 26.

This concert will inaugurate a new ‘Diaspora’ series of presentations being developed by artistic director Blyden-Taylor, focusing on the rich cultural, artistic and creative impact that African culture has had in far-flung locations throughout the world.

Named for the celebrated African-Canadian composer, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale is Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues. The Chorale is comprised of classically trained, multi-faceted vocalists whose work stretches beyond the traditional repertoire of a classical chamber choir, challenging audiences to broaden their vision to include all genres of music appropriate to the traditions of the African diaspora.

Launching the Chorale’s new ‘Diaspora’ series, "Canciones de Cuba" highlights the contributions of African-Cuban poet, Nicholas Guillen (1902 – 1989). Guillen was a contemporary and friend of the African-American author and playwright Langston Hughes and like Hughes, he believed that artists of African descent must be free to "express their individual dark-skinned selves without shame".

The concert will mark the world premiere of three compositions drawn from the poetry of Guillen. The program includes Seis Canciones and Momenade a la Trova, arranged by York University music professor Michael Marcuzzi; Canciones Por Las Americas by Canadian composer Sid Robinovitch; and two pieces by Cuban composer Guillermo Fragoso.

Two York University music students, vocalists Melissa Davis and Kaisha Lee, perform with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. Sharing the stage with the Chorale will be York music professor Sundar Viswanathan (saxophone), alumnus Marcus Ali (flute), and York students Ruben Esguerra (percussion), Sean Bellaviti (piano) and Paco Luviano (bass).

Since its inception in 1998, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale has performed its jubilant repertoire extensively throughout its home province of Ontario and New York state, and on extended tours to the Maritimes (2000), western Canada (2001) and Quebec (2002). The Chorale has shared the stage with leading artists such as Joe Sealy, Kathleen Battle, Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson, the Signal Hill Alumni Choir of Tobago, West Indies, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Other appearances include events such as "Mandela and the Children", CBC Radio’s Live on Stage, Harbourfront Centre’s World Leaders Festival, Chorus America 2001, and the gala closing concert of the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors’ Podium 2002. The Chorale recently released its debut CD, Listen to the Lambs: The Music of Nathaniel Dett on the Marquis Classics/EMI label, to critical acclaim. Carry Me Home: The Story and Music of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a documentary film produced and directed by Liam Romalis of Riddle Films in conjunction with Vision TV and BRAVO, premiered in February 2003.

"Voices of the Diaspora: Canciones de Cuba" takes place Wed. Feb. 26 at 8:00 pm in Burton Auditorium, York University, 4700 Keele St. Admission is $35, $25 for seniors, $15 for students, free for children under 12. Tickets are available by calling 416-872-1212 or at the door on the night of the show.

For further information, please call the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, 416-340- 7000.


Media contact:

Lesley Mitchell-Clarke Brigitte Kleer
Director Manager, Public Relations
LMC Media Faculty of Fine Arts, York University
416-486-6742 416-736-2100, ext. 77143

African-Canadian composer and music educator R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was pre-eminent among early 20th century African-Canadian and African-American musicians. These artists, led by Dett, promoted an awareness of their heritage by composing new works, exploring new forms and fostering an appreciation of existing spirituals and folk songs. Although much of Dett’s professional career took place outside of Canada, he remains a prominent figure in Canadian cultural history.

Born Drummondville (Niagara Falls), Ontario, Nathaniel Dett studied piano as a child and was church organist in Niagara Falls from 1898 to 1903. During this period he composed numerous works, including the well-known Cake Walk and After the Cake Walk. He earned degrees from Oberlin College, Howard University and Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, and studied composition in Paris with internationally-renowned Nadia Boulanger.

In the course of his career, Nathaniel Dett performed at prestigious concert halls such as Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall as well as for two American presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He taught at a number of distinguished schools and was dedicated to the cause of African-Canadian and Africa- American music, serving as president of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1924 to 1926. He edited numerous collections of spirituals and folk songs and in 1920, won both the prestigious Harvard University Bowdoin and Francis Boott prizes for his paper, "The Emancipation of Negro Music", and for his motet, Don’t Be Weary Traveller. His works include Listen to the Lambs, an eight-part anthem written in 1914 which was recorded by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Juba Dance, a piano solo c. 1913 which has appeared in the Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus; and Ordering of Moses, 1937.



Nicholas Guillen (1902-1989) was an African-Cuban poet, writer, journalist and social activist. Born in Camageuey, Cuba, he was the sixth child of Argelia Batista y Arrieta and Nicolas Guillen y Urra, both of whom were of mixed African and Spanish descent. Guillen’s father – a journalist who was eventually murdered by the Cuban government - introduced him to Afro-Cuban music when he was very young.

In 1920, Guillen first began writing about the social problems that peoples of African descent experience worldwide. His first poems were published in 1922. In 1930, he created an international stir with the publication of Motivios de Son, a collection of eight short poems inspired by the "son", a popular Afro-Cuban musical form that grew out of the racist daily living conditions that Afro-Cubans experienced. Composed in the Afro-Cuban vernacular, the collection separated itself from the established Spanish literary canon, and for the first time, situated African culture as a legitimate focus of Cuban literature. The 1972 publication, Guillen: Man Making Words, explores Guillen’s works as a mature poet.

Guillen was one of an international group of poets of the African diaspora which also includes Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Cesaire in francophone literature, and Langston Hughes and Leroy Jones in the African-American tradition. Like his contemporaries, Guillen combined modernist and surrealist influences on poetic form and content. His work validated Afrocentric art forms and aligned them with revolutionary political engagement and the eventual construction of a new society - a society that dedicated itself to the exposure of the social discrimination, prejudices and poverty which have plagued Africans of the diaspora to this day.