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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Summer Music: Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego

Speaker 1: 00:00 In hard times, music consumed are worried minds and there's nothing quite like gospel music to uplift the spirit. Speaker 2: 00:26 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 00:27 For our last installment of the KPBS summer music series. We're going to hear some wonderful gospel music and learn the history of Negro spirituals, the original American music that gave birth to so many genres we enjoy today. We'll be hearing music from San Diego zone, Martin Luther king, Jr. Community choir, who since 1996 has been spreading the gospel around the world and funding scholarships for students. Joining me today is Ken Anderson, the founder and director of the Martin Luther king, Jr. Community choir, San Diego and UCS D's gospel choir director. Ken. Welcome. Speaker 3: 01:05 Thank you. That'd be here. Speaker 1: 01:07 So you are the director and founder of the MLK community choir, and a professor who teaches the history of black music. Can you give us some history on Negro spirituals and tell us how important they are to American? Speaker 3: 01:21 Well, sure. The Negro spirituals songs that the slave son to communicate with each other, how and when and where they be wanting to get away opportunities of freedom, the songs, uh, in the songs, you will find stories of, um, the Jordan river, which is a code name for the Mississippi, the Ohio river, the Cincinnati rivers and leaders in the Bible, even God and Jesus, Moses, other leaders in the Bible code name for people like Harriet Tubman. These were leaders in the Bible were code names for the abolitionists and other workers. They were black, white, Hispanic, Asian, just Americans, everyone working together to help slaves get away to the free states to Canada. I even learned of some even escaping to Europe. And when they sang about going home or the promised land or Beulah land, pretty much any good destination, this was a codename for freedom. So in these songs, they were actually communicating and through this system of communication, the underground railroad helped them to get away Speaker 2: 02:59 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 03:07 And then you can, spiritual is also known as a code sign, C O D E but not all of the songs were coded because when she was a child, she was sold away from her brothers and sisters. And that's why she's saying he's got my brothers and my sisters and his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands. And when a baby was born, a baby was taken from her. So to another plantation, that's why she's saying he's got my little bitty baby. It, his hands got the whole world in his hands somehow or another that the slaves, they come to an understanding that the churches in the south were abusing the Bible in order to justify slavery. So they didn't reject God. And did they didn't reject the Bible. They just rejected their, you know, their masters, their owners, those who were pro slavery. So many of these songs, they were expressing faith in God. And some of the songs they're singing, just encouraging one another. But when you get to songs like steal away and swing low sweet chariot, there is a balm in Gilead had let us break bread together on our knees and on and on. When you get to songs like this, they were actually communicating. This is when and where and how are we going to get away. Speaker 1: 04:17 Wow. And I think that's interesting because in the song that you mentioned, he's got the whole world in his hands, many people, I think, I think of that song as a song of, of rejoicing. And really it's a song that, that is talking about deep trauma, Speaker 3: 04:32 Deep trauma. And, but, but more to the point, encouragement in the midst of deep trauma, they've been seeing songs like I'm so glad that trouble don't last always, or Lord help me to hold out until my change comes, you know? And, uh, things like that. They're encouraging one another to hold on, keep your hand on the plow, hold on. And even in this song, um, finding encouragement and the other, because you know, they were living in a terrible time and they were basically lifestyle. They were basically property families broken up beaten and made to work, forced labor. So that song was, you know, it's lifting them up or encouraging them. Speaker 1: 05:10 You know, how did you learn to sing and play music? Actually, Speaker 3: 05:13 I started in church, like a lot of other people. Uh, I was four years old when my mother taught me my first song, Jesus, keep me near the cross Speaker 2: 05:39 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 05:40 And she taught me the melody. And I've found the notes around the melody to make harmony with it because I remembered it. But it sounded like in church that's when the family realized something was going on with me musically. And then when I was six, I began playing in church. It wasn't necessarily, everything wanted to hear from someone playing the piano and the th the other content from what I, I don't remember this to tell you the truth, because this is what I'm told. And there are many people in the congregation. If not all saying, please get the kid off the piano. The pastor said, leave him alone. He's the only one showing any interest. We'll keep singing. He'll keep playing. He'll catch on. So when I get to heaven, I owe him a great debt of gratitude, but I started playing in church when I was six. Uh, children's choir came to children's choir director when I was about 15 or 16, by the time I was 17 or 18, I became the head of the music program. And from there I've been directing and singing and playing there. You have it. Speaker 1: 06:37 And what's the mission of the Martin Luther king, Jr. Community quiet. Speaker 3: 06:41 We enjoy singing this music and bringing it to other and seeing the joy and how it lifts people. When we go everywhere, we traveled even around the world and, and Dr. Martin Luther king expressed the sentiment and one of his great speeches where he had dream to see the different races together, singing the old Negro spirituals in the Martin Luther king community choir, and UCS, the gospel choir in particular, we live that dream. Uh, one of the practical impacts we have on the community is we provide scholarships for graduating high school, seniors, exclusively in the visual and performing arts. Speaker 1: 07:13 Can anyone participate in the choir if you're Speaker 3: 07:16 Breathing at regular intervals and you can get through the door, your Speaker 1: 07:20 And how many members tell me about me, how many people are in this choir? Speaker 3: 07:24 Well, we average, we sustain a number of between 80 and a hundred, Speaker 1: 07:28 And the choir has performed for different audiences around the world. What's it like, uh, taking the spirit of Martin Luther king Jr. And this, uh, uniquely American music to other countries. Speaker 3: 07:39 Awesome. It's really awesome. Taking it around the world. It's just like taking it around America. Very few people, even in the black church, know the history of the music. So I always give, uh, the history of the music always educated on the music before we begin. If it's during the months of January and February, where we're observing Martin Luther King's birthday, our black history I'll give a more comprehensive. And some concerts actually have me lecture for a few minutes on it. So I can give them at least a history and understanding of where the music is coming from. This music comes from a very dark time of American history, just like any other country. America has embarrassing past as well, but the greatness for any country is to be able to recognize when you're wrong, repent and improve and grow. And then that's built into America, the ability to do that. And that's a wonderful thing. The same thing I do in America, I do. And the other seven countries we've been to number eight, was on the way. And then the pandemic hit and we were going to Canada, but we've been, you know, Germany, Prague, Rome. We actually sang at the Vatican and we were at the mass, uh, I believe his last Easter mass Speaker 2: 08:55 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 09:31 That was worshiped the Lord by Martin Luther king, Jr. Community choir, San Diego. So, so how does this music fit into this particular moment that we're living in right now? Speaker 3: 09:42 I don't know that gospel music fits into a particular moment so much as it fits into the life. That's where music speaks to every aspect of life, even, even the time of life we're in now, because the music is born out of hard time. I mean, this is not the first time America has been in a hard time. There are times when America seems to be doing very well, but there's always a part of America. That's not doing so well. And so the music speaks to every bottle of life from whether you're rejoicing or you're sad, whether you're succeeding or you're failing and need to be encouraged to keep going. As long as you're alive, you can still make it, you know, as long as you keep hope, it's very easy to lose hope because there's just a barrage of things that come at you. Speaker 3: 10:19 I mean, when you watch an hour's broadcast, you might get some good news towards the end. They saved the kitten from a tree or a puppy out of a pipe. And then, you know, they kind of fake shuffle their papers while they smile and tell you to have a good night after they just told you, the whole world is about to go under and people are stressed out. What's going on with the pandemic and what's going on with the government what's going on overseas. And we haven't had time to talk about what's going on in their own homes and in their own lives and relationships and, and their own hearts and minds. And so there's a lot in this world to stress you out, but there's also a lot in this world to be thankful for and to rejoice over in just enough. You can just keep going. If you can just hold out till your change comes. Speaker 1: 11:01 And I've been speaking with Ken Anderson, the founder and director of the Martin Luther king, Jr. Community choir, San Diego, and U C S D gospel choir director, Ken Anderson. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank Speaker 3: 11:14 You so much for having me. This was a pleasure Speaker 2: 11:28 [inaudible] Speaker 4: 11:30 That was midday edition, host Jade Hyman catch MLK. CCSDS Ken Anderson and Dale Fleming as part of the Bodhi tree concerts, 10th anniversary celebration that Saturday, September 25th at 7:00 PM at St. James by the sea of Piskel church, go to kpbs.org/summer music series for the full interview and for a video interview, Speaker 2: 14:51 [inaudible].

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A decades-old San Diego community choir shares the history, trauma, encouragement and rejoicing found in gospel music, plus the coded folk songs of African American spirituals.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments