Unitarian Universalist composer Ysaye Maria Barnwell is a native of New York, now living in Washington, DC where since 1979, she has performed with the internationally acclaimed a cappella quintet, SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK. She is a vocalist with a range of over three octaves and appears on more than twenty-five recordings with Sweet Honey as well as other artists. In her first year with Sweet Honey, she provided leadership in making the group’s concerts accessible to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing through Sign Language interpretation.
The daughter of a violinist, Dr. Barnwell began her 15 year study of the violin with her father at the age of 2 ½. She holds the Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Speech Pathology (SUNY, Geneseo), the Doctor of Philosophy (Univ. of Pittsburgh) and the Master of Science in Public Health (Howard University, Washington, DC) and the (Honorary) Doctor of Humane Letters (1998 SUNY, Geneseo). She has been a professor at the College of Dentistry at Howard University, and in addition to conducting community based projects in computer technology and in the arts, she has administered and implemented health programs at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.
After coming to Washington, DC in 1976, Dr. Barnwell “warned in by mistake” to All Souls Unitarian, although she was aware of the church’s well known African American minister, the Rev. David Eaton. She also knew about the church’s role in the civil rights movement, and of the significant impact made by the church’s Black Caucus. But he was not yet thinking of herself as a singer. On that first visit to All Souls she did notice that while the congregation was racially mixed, the choir was not. So she founded and for three years directed the All Souls Jubilee Singers, where she taught spirituals and gospels orally (as opposed to relying on written music), stressing the communal nature of the choir. She began composing and arranging music for vocal ensembles. One of her most enduring songs, “Breaths,” was first composed for the singers at All Souls.
Barnwell said this to the UU World about music, community, and contemporary culture:
“Nothing on the radio is groups, people singing together anymore,” Barnwell replied. Pop music is all about soloists, digitally perfected, not live harmonies. The spirituals created by the slaves, and the songs sung by civil rights marchers, were often simple, very singable, and constantly reflected what was going on. They were a base. Each generation will create its own song. I want young people to know that you can update them and put them in you own room. But we all have to be in a room and talk about what’s important, then we all know we agree with the words.”
Barnwell has composed and arranged music on more than 14 recordings on labels including Flying Fish, EarthBeat!/Warner, Music For Little People and Rykodisc/Palm Pictures, Sony Classical. She has worked as a commissioned composer on numerous and varied projects including Sesame Street, Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh, David Rousseve’s Reality Dance Company, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Women’s Philharmonic of San Francisco, Redwood Cultural Work, The New Spirituals Project, The Steel Festival of Bethlehem, PA, The Plymouth Music Series and numerous choirs – all outgrowths of her combined understanding of creative arts inextricably bound to society. For twenty years now, Barnwell has conducted THE WORKSHOP: Building a Vocal Community – Singing In the African American Tradition where throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia she has utilized African and African American history, values, cultural and vocal traditions to worked with singers and non-singers alike.
Barnwell is also an actress whose credits include voice overs, film narration, a principle role in an episode of the TV show ‘A Man Called Hawk’, and an appearance in the film BELOVED directed by Jonathan Demme.
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