Gullah music expert joins movie team

By Alex Cone and Denise McGill

Dr. Eric Crawford serves as director of music for our documentary film. In that capacity, he is tasked with finding the right songs for each scene. The Gullah Project’s score will include a mix of traditional music, modern arrangements of existing tunes and Crawford’s original compositions.

In his day job, Crawford is assistant professor of musicology at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. He studies Gullah music and its transformation since the antebellum period. Crawford says that many Gullah songs contain a high degree of musical retention since the antebellum period and carry vestiges of West African culture. He is interested in adapting classic Gullah songs to the hip hop genre so that younger audiences can hold on to their roots.

 Crawford is well qualified to be director of music for The Gullah Project. In April 2014, Coastal Carolina University’s Athenaeum Press released the compact disc, Gullah, the Voice of an Islandwhich features his field recordings on St. Helena Island from 2012-2014. The album involved students and faculty and contains the singing of four song leaders on the island: Gracie Gadson, James Smalls,  and Rosa and Joseph Murray. This project was the culmination of a seven-year study of St. Helena Island spirituals.

 Crawford says he has a natural interest in the culture’s music because it is unique in all of America. “The Gullah Geechee culture forms the root of African American music in this country,” he says. “Due to the fact that so many slaves reached America by way of Charleston ports, and that the Sea Islands presented a natural barrier from outsiders, the West African culture was strongest here.”

 “Our first musical examples, [documented in the book] Slave Songs of the United Statesof Negro spirituals, come from the Sea Islands in the 1860s,” Crawford says. “As a result, this period becomes the starting point for our understanding of the music of slave society, its language, and the emotion of black worship.”

 Crawford’s research examines how Gullah music responded to societal pressures. When slaves were prohibited from using African drums, the Gullah developed other ways to communicate and make music. “It was believed that slaves communicated through the use of drums, thus South Carolina banned the use of drums by slaves,” Crawford said. “In response, slaves relied upon handclapping, foot stamping, or occasionally a stick served to give the needed pulse or accompanying beat for a song. Even today, Gullah singers are able to tap one pattern with their foot, clap another pattern with their hands, and sing all at the same time. And these singers are quite elderly. In the end, the slave’s body became an instrument that could not be taken away.”

For generations, Gullah culture was considered backward. Places like the Penn Center on St. Helena help the community see their distinctions with pride rather than shame. Crawford has worked closely with the Penn Center to preserve songs that were once hidden from the public.

Crawford doesn’t just study music, he’s a performer. He has served as director for numerous African American choirs and ensembles. In 2016, Crawford composed and performed a jazz piano opus to commemorate the Charleston church shootings. His music puts him in touch with talented artists, whom he plans to enlist in performances for the movie score.

 The director of The Gullah Project, Denise McGill, met Crawford at the 2014 Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration. Crawford’s long term investment in Gullah culture and music expertise made him an easy choice for the film’s music chief.

 “I’m excited he’s on our team because he has the perfect blend of scholarly knowledge and musical talent,” McGill said. “He’s going to be able to find songs that are historically accurate that also fit the mood of a given scene.”

 She continued, “When you hear a traditional song, and it builds to a choir singing a modern rendition of that song – that’s the thing he’s going to be able to do with real grace.”

 

Gullah Project goes to Charleston

2016-chsiff-laurel-filmWe are proud to announce our film has been accepted to the 9th annual Charleston International Film Festival. The Gullah Project will screen Saturday, November 5th in the 2 PM block of short films at Charleston Music Hall. 

The entire film festival takes place November 2 – 6 in downtown Charleston.

It’s an honor to be invited to such a prestigious festival. We hope many of the stars of the film will be able to join us. St. Helena Island is 45 miles down the coastline, but it’s a 78 mile trip by car.

To find a complete list of screenings for this documentary film please visit the Screenings section of our webpage.

 

 

Profiles of the Gullah: Brandon and Jordan Johnson

Profiles of the Gullah: Brandon and Jordan Johnson from Denise McGill on Vimeo.

Siblings Brandon, left, and Jordan Johnson have lived on St. Helena Island their whole lives. Each year they work to raise collards, sweet potatoes and sugar cane with their grandfather, Ben Johnson Jr. Then the whole family helps to sell the produce at Heritage Days Celebration in November, and they all share the profits.

SCETV program explains connection between Gullah and African coastlines

I’m expanding my knowledge base by finding films and books about Gullah culture that I’ve previously missed. I’ll share some of them as I make my way through. Many thanks to Amy Shumaker @shu2833, executive producer at #SCETV, for providing links to some of these hard-to-find programs!

Recently I saw Family Across the Sea, a 57-minute documentary film by Tim Carrier that originally ran on South Carolina public television (SCETV) in 1990. Carrier follows a group of Gullah people from the United States as they travel to Sierra Leone to visit the lands of their ancestors. It’s a moving story with some surprising connections between the two cultures.

The film explores the similarities in geography, culture and language between the Sea Islands of the United States and the west coast of Sierra Leone, Africa. The first connections were discovered by Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African-American linguist who made  hundreds of recordings of Gullah speakers and songs in the 1930s. He discovered some of the exact same songs in Sierra Leone.

Gullah delegation experiences highs and lows on their trip. The most  painful event is the visit to Bunce Island, where most of their ancestors were loaded onto boats for America. Another moving scene is an interview with villagers in Sierra Leone. They knew many of their people were kidnapped years ago, but never knew what became of them. The high point is easily the reunion between the Americans and the villagers, who welcome them as long lost relatives.

The plot moves back to South Carolina where Joseph Momoh, President of Sierra Leone, visits the Penn Center in 1988. His visit solidifies recognition of the ties between Gullah and Sierra Leone cultures. As a result Gullah speakers, often ridiculed for their “uneducated” dialect, have a new pride in their heritage. Their language becomes an important link to their motherland that is worthy of preservation and academic study. That pride continues to this day, where Gullah continues to gain appreciation as a rare piece of the American experience.

Family Across the Sea SCETV program http://www.folkstreams.net/film,166

Film festival screenings bring awareness to Gullah/Geechee culture

Our team created a seven-minute overview of The Gullah Project to mark our progress. We entered the overview into film festivals as a short documentary. We are excited to report that out of nine entries, The Gullah Project overview was accepted into five festivals. It screened in five cities this spring.

The screenings have raised awareness about Gullah culture for audiences all over North America. There is little knowledge of Gullah history outside of the Southeast United States. At Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival, few people in the international community had ever heard of the Gullah. Festivals hold a Q&A after each screening so viewers can learn how the film was made. Director/Producer Denise McGill was able to attend four of the festivals.

Film festivals are valuable because they provide feedback. Just to be accepted at so many venues is a very positive sign. Met professionals in the industry who take an interest in our project, offer good advice about further contacts, possible team members, next steps and distribution. Share ideas with other filmmakers and bond. Learn from their previous mistakes and successes. Spread the word about Gullah history and St. Helena Island. Learned what elements of our film are most engaging to the audience. How the film industry works. Set realistic goals. Join network of filmmakers with similar passion and causes.

Currently working on one-hour film with the goal of airing on public television. Since getting feedback, our team has made changes to the script, and continue editing. Nearly all the filming and field work is complete. Now we are fundraising. Funds will allow us to add major talent to our team, top professionals who can polish the visuals, audio, graphics, and soundtrack for the film.

Unfortunately, the overview is not available for the public online while it is at festivals. We’ll let you know when there is a way to see it.

 

 

Introducing Jameah and Jamyah Moore

Twins Jameah and Jamyah Moore have lived on St. Helena Island their entire young lives. Their community involvement began when they started volunteering at Sara’ Reynolds Green’s Marshview Community Organic Farm at age 9. At Penn Center Heritage Days Festival in 2014, they performed in the Road of Remembrance play about the history of St. Helena Island. The Gullah Project interviewed them during a rehearsal break. At the time, the twins were in seventh grade at Lady’s Island Middle School.

 

 

The Gullah Project accepted to the 14th Annual Female Eye Film Festival

The Gullah Project has been accepted to the 14th Annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, Canada.

The Gullah Project will screen in an International Documentary Program block on Wednesday, June 15th. Among the films in this block are The Nike Chariot Earring directed by Karen Audette and feature film Following Kina directed by Sonia Goldenberg followed by a Filmmaker Q & A session.

Female Eye Film Festival is an international film festival dedicated to women directors uniting film enthusiast, international women directors, celebrities, and industry professionals such as film and television screenwriters and producers. Their goal is to not only support the advancement of women directors but to promote equality and empowerment for women everywhere through cinema.

To learn more about the Female Eye Film Festival please visit their official webpage at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

To learn more about future screens of The Gullah Project please visit our Screenings page found in our main menu.

The Gullah Project nominated for Best Documentary at Cape Fear Independent Film Festival

The Gullah Project was nominated for Best Documentary at Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in March. The winner for Best Documentary went to Lee’s 88 Keys, directed by Susan Robbins. She also won the award for Best Female Director.

Despite not taking home the award, Cape Fear Independent Film Festival was a huge success for our team. The small venue provided an intimate setting to meet like-minded individuals with a wide variety of experience. Through them, we learned a lot about the art of filmmaking.

It was useful to get feedback from festival-goers about our project. Viewers confirmed that the strongest element of our film is the people of St. Helena Island. We are truly gratified that viewers responded this way. People were very generous with helpful comments. It was a great affirmation for our work.

The Gullah Project will screen at Charlotte Black Film Festival this Saturday, April 9th at 10:00am. Make sure to visit our Screenings page for other listings.

 

 

The Gullah Project screens at Cape Fear Indep. Film Festival

We are excited to screen The Gullah Project at Cape Fear Independent Film Festival tonight at 7pm in Hannah S. Block Community Arts Center. It shows alongside Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal.

We also screen The Gullah Project tomorrow Saturday, March 11th at 5:30pm. This screening will also be held at the Hannah S. Block Community Arts Center and will be accompanied by Lee’s 88 Keyes, The Disappearing Church, and Witch!.

For more information about screenings and showtimes please click here.

The McKissick Museum presents Shared Traditions: Sacred Music in the South

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The McKissick Museum will present Shared Traditions: Sacred Music in the South on February 26-27 in Columbia, SC.

The conference will begin on Friday, February 26, 2016 at 3:30 at McKissick Museum located on the campus of the University of South Carolina. There is will be an artist meet and greet with Anita Singleton-Prather, a curator-led tour of Heard at Every Turn: Traditional Music in South Carolina and The African-American Spiritual Tradition in the Sea Islands.

Starting at 9am on Saturday, February 27th, Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia will hold a panel session for Vocal Godliness: Gospel in Black and White. It will be followed with a keynote address by ethnomusicologist Dr. Cynthia Schmidt, The Legacy of Song: Gullah Tradition and the TransAtlantic Dialogue and will include a film screening of The Language You Cry In.

To find out more information about this exciting presentation please visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/mckissickmuseum/shared-traditions-sacred-music-south.