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Roanoke musicians will spread their talents, knowledge of Gullah Geechee singing

Roanoke musicians will spread their talents, knowledge of Gullah Geechee singing
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The tradition of Gullah Geechee music goes back hundreds of years, from descendants of enslaved Africans from Florida, and North and South Carolina. The creole language is native of those coastal areas.

Gullah Geechee songs are often rooted in a ‘call and response’ pattern, and without the need for instruments.

This week, two artists deeply rooted in that heritage are among those performing Thursday in Roanoke as part of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Celebration at the Taubman Museum of Art.

South Carolina native Bernadette “BJ” Lark, a Roanoke artist and composer, first heard this music as an infant. Her first babysitter was her great-grandmother. Her mother is a missionary, and her father is a pastor.

“We call it striking out in song, and making sure it’s soul stirring.” Lark said. “No accompanist needed, not even a drum. It’s more impromptu. Whatever you’re feeling in the moment, you can sing about life, you can sing about anything.”

Lark’s mentorship of Alanjha Harris, now 18, started when she was 4.

“I just love how are people were affected by what she was singing, and how she was singing,” Harris explained. “People would come up to her, and (say) ‘wow, that really blessed me. I just thought, well, I have a gift too, if she’s saying I can do this, then I can bless other people and them the way she did.”

Harris, who admits to being a shy person, says this whole experience has brought her out of her comfort zone.

Lark says serving as a mentor began in Roanoke as she and her family saw Harris in church, or fellowship. She said Harris’ mother would sign her up for youth choirs and other events.

“Alanjha was one that I knew early on had a gift to sing,” she said. “(She) would match me perfectly in pitch, in harmony, in voice. So I knew early on she had a phenomenal gift.”

Lark says she often resorts to one of the world’s most popular songs, Kumbaya, when doing presentations of Gullah-Geechee culture. She said the tradition takes the form of art outside of music, like visual arts.

“The Gullah Gechee tradition doesn’t exist without love,” she stated. “We are rooted in love. It brings people together. And art that can give you that language that unifies.”

Harris is attending Liberty University in Lynchburg this fall, and plans to study musical theater.







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