A small intimate audience experienced one of the most powerful concerts to visit Windsor in the last decade when Khari Wendell McClelland performed the music of the nationally-acclaimed theatre drama Freedom Singer at the Capitol Theatre on Sept. 29.
It was a homecoming concert for Vancouver-based Khari, who grew up on the banks of the Detroit River in the Motor City. He wrote the songs for Freedom Singer about his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy, who was one of the brave American slaves who fled to the safety of the Underground Railroad through Amherstburg.
It was easy to see how personal this show was for him and he shared the songs with open arms and an open soul. The songs were traditional at the core, with a mix of R&B and rap thrown into the mix to modernize the sound a bit.
The band was comprised of three incredibly gifted musicians: Toronto soul singer Tanika Charles, guitarist Noah Walker and drummer Adam Warner. Charles gave the pieces an extra dose of soul with her powerful background vocals and as the lead for a handful of tracks.
This show also marked Freedom Singer’s first appearance in the area where much of the inspiration for the story takes place. It was also a homecoming for Khari, who had his mother, brother and cousins in the audience.
The show opened with a powerful rendition of Fleeting Is The Time, the title track from his upcoming EP and a song that set the tone for the emotional roller coaster that lied ahead. What followed literally changed everything.
Emotions were pouring out as he went through No More Auction Block, a spiritual song dating back to at least the United States Civil War where it served as a marching song for African American soldiers. Unlike many of the other anti-slavery songs of the time, this song deals with the issue of slavery directly, as opposed to having a double meaning.
Khari’s version, unlike the folk version from Bob Dylan (who also used elements of it in his hit Blowin’ In The Wind) was slowed down and turned into something that resembled a piece that could have been sung by slaves in the early-to-mid 19th century.
He quickly followed the traditional spiritual with an even deeper song, Never The Child Be Sold, a deep and powerful piece with strong percussion in the form of drums and foot stomps. They cried out lyrics “You can sell a pig, you can sell a cow, never a child be sold” with such passion that nothing else mattered at that moment. At this point Khari had gained the full attention and respect of the entire audience with occasional outbursts of emotion and rhythmic claps.
He presented Never The Child Be Sold around traditional folk lyrics and a fragment of a 1943 recording of dialog from William Riley while searching the National Archives in Nova Scotia. As with most of Freedom Singer, this song was developed around those recordings to present a modern interpretation of what may have been sung by Kizzy in the 1800s.
Other songs which were discovered in his research were performed, including Song of The Fugitive, and Song of The Agitators, which required a bit of audience participation.
Midway during the show, Khari took a bit of a spiritual break to allow the audience to connect with their lost ancestors in the same way he connected with Kizzy. Outbursts and lots of crying carried throughout the Capitol as audience members spoke the names of relatives long gone. For many it was a moment of revelation and for others it was a spiritual connection to their past. One thing for sure is that at that moment Kizzy was ultimately honoured in the highest.
Tanika Charles performed a couple solo tracks while the audience and Khari recovered from the emotional outbreak near the end of the show. Charles would be an amazing show to catch on her own. Her voice is clearly a gift for God and matched the content of Freedom Singer as if she herself was considered as the female voice during the writing process.
Khari closed the show with an original he wrote on a trip to Ireland called Roll On and an upbeat cover of Stand By Me, where he performed the song walking around the audience.
While Windsor only had a chance to catch the concert version of Freedom Singer, there was enough emotion and passion in the music to capture the essence of how dramatic and expressive the stage version would be. Based entirely on this musical presentation, it’s clear that every school in the country should be required to see the show.
Whether we want to admit it or not, the Underground Railroad and slavery are as much a part of Canadian history as the country’s formation itself and as we celebrate our 150th Anniversary this year, we must also remember to NEVER forget the gloomy parts as well. We’ll never learn from our past if we don’t remember, discuss and disassemble the good and the bad of our history.
Thank you Khari for sharing your story and helping us remember the oppression that did and has existed in North America for way too long. Let’s hope Windsor gets the full dramatic presentation in the future.
For more on Freedom Singer visit Project Humanity.