Composer Ysaye Barnwell is in Twin Cities this week to hear her commissioned work by the vocal group Cantus. She took a break for lunch Thursday before a late afternoon rehearsal and a subsequent performance at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.
Wednesday night, Barnwell spent 90 minutes directing a community sing of spirituals that she had arranged.
“You find out in a hurry who wants to wade in the water and who is a motherless child,” she said.
Barnwell sang and composed with Sweet Honey in the Rock before retiring in 2013. It was all amicable, all good.
“Thirty-four years was enough,” she said. “That’s all. I needed to not do that anymore.”
Barnwell wrote “Tango With God” for Cantus. It’s one of four songs the chorus commissioned for its fall program, “The Four Loves,” which will be performed five times (including Thursday night) over the next ten days. See the website for details.
Barnwell said she agrees that the Twin Cities is the singing capital of the United States (“Everybody expects music here”) and she’s been here many times with Sweet Honey, and with VocalEssence as part of the Witness program. She has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1968, when she determined that she needed to teach at a historic black college, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. She ended up at Howard University.
She joined Sweet Honey in 1979 after giving them a couple of songs she had composed. Oddly, she hadn’t studied music. She has graduate degrees in speech pathology and said Thursday that “I still don’t consider myself a singer or composer.”
Perhaps Barnwell’s best known song is “Wanting Memories,” which is a favorite in the Cantus repertory. She said her approach as a writer depends on what moves her. It can be a melody, a rhythm (which she insists has its own tones and tunes) or by lyrics.
An international traveler, Barnwell said Cuba was her favorite spot.
“I want to get back there before it is tarnished,” she said, speaking of the inevitable change that will occur as the U.S. trade embargo goes away and commerce invades the island. “I love their love of music.”