The thread that connects American popular music from 1619 to the present is Black. Scholars know that, as do some fans. Skylight Music Theatre makes it explicit in “Forgotten Voices,” a spirited show that goes from traditional West African rhythms to The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 84 minutes.
Skylight recorded the concert-style performance for an invited audience at the Broadway Theatre Center, and premiered it online on Saturday, which was Juneteenth Day. It can be streamed for free through July 18, but registration is required at skylightmusictheatre.org.
Director Sheri Williams Pannell also served as onstage griot (and occasional sixth singer). Her long poem connected and introduced segments and contextualized the Black experience reflected in these songs, including slavery and the Great Migration. Her words were sometimes celebratory, sometimes didactic. Pointing out how British white rock bands studied and imitated Black blues and rock, Williams Pannell declared “I’m not hatin’ / just recognizin’ the inspiration.”
Via video, percussionist and vocalist Paschal Yao Younge, a native of Ghana, led the five-singer ensemble in traditional call-and-response songs from West Africa. “If you were to sort of break down and analyze and look at the songs late in the program, even all the way up to Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’ … you could trace those rhythms back to the very same rhythms that you will hear from the African instruments at the beginning of the program,” said soprano Cecilia Davis during a pre-show interview.
Davis said she found the African section personally moving because it personifies “the experience of being taken from one’s home country, being shipped out on a slave ship, and having only with you the memory of the music and the instruments.”
“Forgotten Voices” does not shy away from painful or sorrowful aspects of the Black experience in America; the first segment ended with Bill Jackson singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday.
But this is frequently a happy show as well. Some of the fun comes from hearing familiar local performers sing unexpected things, such as classical soprano Davis nailing the gorgeous high notes of Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You,” and Jackson delivering the romantic ballad “Prisoner of Love,” which was a hit for both Billy Eckstine and Perry Como.
Most unexpected of all, the buoyant Shawn Holmes declaimed the opening stanza of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” surely the first time that’s ever been performed in the Cabot Theatre. The Sabbath screed was one of several songs drawn from white rock groups to show their debt to Black roots.
Tasha McCoy stood in for powerhouse soul and R&B vocalists Aretha Franklin (“Chain of Fools”), Etta James (“I’d Rather Go Blind”) and Tina Turner (“A Fool in Love”). But she also served up a smoky version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”
As for Kevin James Sievert, give this man a Motown show. The boyish performer sang a dang-perfect take on the Supremes’ “Come See About Me.” Earlier, he led a spirited audience singalong to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”
Music director and keyboardist Christie Chiles Twillie led an onstage trio that included guitarist Stephen Hull and drummer Terry Jeanes, with several guest appearances by dobro wizard Johnny Maddox via video from Finland. It’s a lot to ask a trio to play gospel, swing, blues, rock, disco and hip-hop in the same show, but apart from my aching desire to hear a horn section on “I Want to Take You Higher,” the music was full and rich. The band got a feature, too: Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Green Onions.”
“Forgotten Voices” ended with a segment of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song often called the Black national anthem and a fitting conclusion to a Juneteenth-inspired program.
Davis said that Younge told the singers during rehearsals that performing this music “is a call to our ancestors to be with us,” and that he would share the concert with his African network. “To know that we are sharing this with our brothers and sisters in the continent from where all of this is rooted really makes me feel humbled to do this very important work,” she said.
“Forgotten Voices” can be viewed online through July 18. Register for free at skylightmusictheatre.org.