Health

Paul T. Kwami, Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Longtime Director, Dies at 70

Paul T. Kwami, the longtime director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who cemented the ensemble’s reputation as one of the country’s premier interpreters of African American spiritual music, died on Saturday in Nashville. He was 70.

His wife, Susanna Kwami, confirmed the death, in a hospital, but did not provide a cause.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers put Nashville on the musical map long before the city became famous for its honky-tonks and slide guitars.

The group, based at Fisk University, a historically Black institution that was founded a year after the Civil War, was originally intended as a fund-raising tool; it toured the country in the 1870s to bring in money for the struggling college.

The group, many of whose members were formerly enslaved people, was among the first to perform spirituals like “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water,” songs that many white audiences had never heard, especially in the North.

Their first tour, in 1871, earned enough money to retire the school’s debt, pay for a 40-acre parcel of land north of downtown Nashville and erect the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. They sang for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House and performed for six weeks in New York City.

“They used the power and beauty of their music, and the beauty of their singing, to win the love of people,” Dr. Kwami said in a radio interview in February.

A native of Ghana and a Fisk graduate, Dr. Kwami continued that tradition when he took over as the group’s music director in 1994.

The Jubilee Singers performing at Fisk University in Nashville this June. Under Dr. Kwami’s direction, the group recently won its first Grammy Award.Credit…Jason Davis/Getty Images

He insisted that the singers — eight men and eight women, all Fisk undergraduates — keep to a rigorous rehearsal and touring schedule. He also made sure that they understood not just the history of Fisk and its musical heritage, but the roots of the songs they sang.

Spirituals, he told them, played many roles in slave communities. They could be lamentations or celebrations; at the same time, they could serve as a means of stealthy communication, spreading news outside the ken of white slavers.

“He made us understand the language of love that was in the middle of those spirituals,” Michangelo Scruggs, who was a Jubilee Singer from 1993 to 1996, said in a phone interview. “A spiritual is not just a song. It’s a communication. It talks about the struggles and how slaves were able to overcome their struggles, whether it was through the end of slavery or whether it was even through death.”

Dr. Kwami also impressed upon his students the African roots of the music they sang. In 2007, he took the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Ghana to perform during the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence; while there, they visited the grave of the Black sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was also a Fisk graduate.

Under Dr. Kwami’s direction, the Jubilee Singers recorded several albums and also appeared on albums by other artists, some of them outside the group’s usual gospel and spiritual fare. They were featured alongside Neil Young in “Heart of Gold,” a 2006 concert documentary directed by Jonathan Demme and recorded at the renowned Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, where the singers performed regularly.

“Reverence was a huge thing for him, but in that reverence he was open to going into places that the group had never gone before,” Ruby Amanfu, a Nashville-based singer and Dr. Kwami’s niece, said in an interview.

In 2000, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame. In 2008, Dr. Kwami appeared on the group’s behalf at the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts, the country’s highest award for cultural achievement.

In 2020, the Fisk Jubilee Singers released “Celebrating Fisk!,” an album of 12 songs recorded at the Ryman featuring guest appearances by musicians like Ms. Amanfu, Keb’ Mo’ and Lee Ann Womack. It won the group its first Grammy Award, for best roots gospel album.

That year, Dr. Kwami told NPR: “When I remember the life stories of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, some of whom were slaves, some who did not know their parents and yet left this rich legacy for us, if they were to come back today, I am sure they will be very happy that we are still singing the Negro spirituals and also still talking about them.”

Dr. Kwami inside Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, named after the Jubilee Singers, last year.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

Paul Theophilus Kwami was born on March 14, 1952, in Amedzofe, a small Ghanaian mountain town about 100 miles northeast of the country’s capital, Accra. His father, Theophilus Kwami, was a music teacher and a farmer; his mother, Monica Rosaline (Dikro) Kwami, raised him and his six siblings.

When Paul wasn’t picking coffee on his family plantation, he was sitting with his father at his piano, learning the basics of music theory. He decided to follow his father into music education, studying for two years at a teachers college; in 1982, he received a bachelor’s degree in music education at the National Academy of Music in Ghana.

He returned home to teach and play the organ at his local church, but a chance encounter with a missionary from the United States introduced him to the idea of continuing his education at Fisk. Although he had grown up listening to gospel music on the radio, he had never heard of the university or its heralded singing group.

He left his job and family in Ghana and moved to Nashville, with the intention of rounding out his education and then returning home. Instead, a friend persuaded him to join the Jubilee Singers, who were under the direction of his mentor at the time, McCoy Ransom.

He stayed in the United States after graduating from Fisk with a second bachelor’s degree, also in musical education, in 1985. He received a master’s degree in the same subject from Western Michigan University in 1987, then worked for a music publishing company in Nashville before returning to Fisk, and the Jubilee Singers, in 1994. He received a doctorate from the American Conservatory of Music in 2009.

Along with his wife, Dr. Kwami is survived by his daughter, Rachel Kwami; his sons, Paul E. Kwami and Delali Kwami; his sisters, Ruby F. Kwami, Patricia S. Kwami and Joan A. Kwami; and his brother, Dickson K. Kwami.

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