YORK — The music of South Africa and American Gospel will fill the York Community Auditorium on July 20, as two respected voices of those traditions will sing with a 100-member chorus in concert that evening.
And if you happen to be passing First Parish Church the week before, you just might hear the sweet strains of the music emanating out, as chorus members take part in a daily singing workshop in preparation for the concert.
All of this comes to the community of York thanks to one of its own — music director Joanne Connolly, the founder and director of the popular Seacoast choral groups Voices from the Heart and Con Tutti.
Connolly has participated in workshops for more than a decade with Kathy Bullock, professor of music at Berea College in Kentucky and steeped in the American Gospel and American Spiritual traditions. She met South African singer and composer Bongani Magatyana at a workshop in western Massachusetts several years ago, and Voices sang in his Cape Town church when they were in the country last summer.
“I usually hold events like this in Portsmouth, but thought I should try this in my ‘back yard,’” said Connolly. “I wanted to bring both Kathy and Bongani to meet my singers, and I wanted to bring them to Maine.”
For Connolly, this is a chance to bring rich traditions with roots in the black experience to York. Bullock, who teaches theory and ethnomusicology, directs the Black Music Ensemble, a 70-member choir that specializes in the performance of African American music.
She also leads workshops around the world on the music and culture of the African diaspora, which is how she met Connolly in 2007. Connolly remembers the first time she heard Bullock she was “wowed. I was amazed by her talent, her teaching, her giant love that fuels all she does.”
Bullock, said Connolly, grew up in her father’s Baptist church in Washington, D.C. “She performs beautiful gospel music. When she sings, people cry. She is Christian, but she shares music in a very ecumenical way.”
Too, said Connolly, there is something about gospel music that uplifts. “People love to sing it. It’s powerful and passionate. The songs she teaches are so powerful.”
As for South African music, Connolly said she’s always been drawn to it. “I just love it. It’s exciting, it’s linked to the South African culture, it’s resistance music. A lot of great music came out of apartheid, for terrible reasons, but so beautiful too.”
Magatyana said the songs people will hear on July 20 are most from his Xhosa culture from the eastern Cape province, and the second largest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulus.
“I’m a Xhosa man, and I would love to share songs of my tradition with the world,” said Magatyana, who directs the 120-member choir at his home church, Old Apostolic Church. He teaches, leads a musical theater company and composes music as well. In fact Voices from the Heart commissioned him to write a piece for them.
South Africa, he said, is “a nation that loves dancing, and most of our songs have dances. We sing and dance when we are happy, when we are angry, when we are sad,” he said. “I will also teach some of my original songs, and most of them tell the true stories about life in South Africa.”
When they’re not in workshop, Connolly plans to show off York and the Seacoast to Bullock and Magatyana, including, of course, taking them for a lobster dinner. But it’s the music that that will be the real sustenance – and unifier.
“I grew up thinking that people are too different,” said Magatyana. “But through music, I found out that we are all the same human beings.”
The concert takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 20 at the York Community Auditorium. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and brownpapertickets.com, and $15 at the door.
Workshop members will perform a couple of songs with Joyce Andersen and the Band of the Willing during their weekly Thursday concert from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 18 at First Parish Church.
Connolly said there is still space in the workshop for six additional people: two each for sopranos, tenors and basses. To get in touch with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.