Sunday, January 29, 2012 'Songs, Some Coded, of Liberation,' Works by Nkeiru Okoye & Julius P. Williams

[Nkeiru Okoye (Phil Marino for The New York Times)]
Nkeiru Okoye and Roy Eaton are featured frequently on AfriClassical.  Julius P. Williams is profiled at

Arts | Long Island
Published: January 27, 2012
WHEN Nkeiru Okoye, a composer who lives in Massapequa, decided to move beyond the mostly orchestral works she had written, she set out to create some vocal music. Envisioning an oratorio, Ms. Okoye (pronounced oh-KOY-yeh), who is of African-American and Nigerian descent, felt that 'a black woman would be a natural subject.' 

“Living in Baltimore at the time, around eight years ago, she focused on Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who repeatedly led other slaves north to freedom through the secret network of safe houses and routes of the Underground Railroad.” “As the oratorio grew into the makings of a full-fledged opera, she also produced a cycle of four songs — arias from the opera — that could be sung independently.

Those 'Songs of Harriet Tubman,' which were completed in 2007, will be a centerpiece of 'A Ride on the Underground Railroad,' to be performed on Feb. 5 at Hofstra University in celebration of Black History Month. The concert, which includes both premieres and familiar music on the themes of freedom and courage, will take place at 3 p.m. at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse. Ms. Okoye, 39, an adjunct assistant professor of music at Hofstra, is hosting the event and will provide some narration. “I’m going to take you through a ride on the Underground Railroad,” she said. “A lot of people think it was an actual train.”

Parts of the concert will explore “coded spirituals,” whose lyrics were embedded with hidden messages alerting slaves to coming escapes or routes to freedom.” Coded messages are also the basis for Julius P. Williamss 'Fantasy for Violin and Chamber Orchestra,' composed for the concert. The work is based on the spiritual 'The Gospel Train,' whose lyrics relay that 'the Gospel train’s a’comin’, I hear it just at hand ... .' To slaves, the message was 'be prepared — people from the Underground Railroad are coming here,' Mr. Williams, a professor of composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, said in a telephone interview. Plantation owners, meanwhile, 'would think, oh, they’re just singing about the gospel train going to heaven,' he said.

Performers at the concert will include the Hofstra Chamber Choir, with students from the Hempstead High School Select Chorale; members of the Hofstra Symphony Orchestra; the tenor Robert Anthony Mack, singing music by Wendell Logan, a composer of jazz and concert music; the pianist Roy Eaton, playing a Scott Joplin rag; and the contralto Nicole Mitchell, in an arrangement (by Samuel Nathan, a Hofstra music student) of 'Go Down, Moses.' That spiritual will pave the way for 'Songs of Harriet Tubman,' performed by the soprano Diana Solomon-Glover.” 

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