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Oberlin’s Tiny Ref Desk Concerts Continue in 2019

JOSH SPIELMAN // FEBRUARY 22, 2019 

At noon on Valentine’s Day, students from Oberlin’s Black Musicians Guild (OCBMG) stood close together behind a desk at the Conservatory library. After librarian Kathy Abromeit welcomed attendees to this year’s “Tiny Ref Desk Concert,” the 8-musician ensemble launched into a set of five African-American spirituals performed acapella.

This was the second ever Tiny Ref Desk Concert, organized by Kathy Abromeit, inspired by NPR’s popular Tiny Desk Concert series. For those unfamiliar, NPR’s series consists of upcoming and popular musicians performing short, intimate sets at a staffer’s cluttered desk during an otherwise normal workday in NPR’s D.C. office.

Before she turned the figurative spotlight over to the musicians, Abromeit, beaming, briefly spoke about her enthusiasm for spirituals. It’s easy to see why: the ensemble performed infectiously bubbly, upbeat songs with jazzy harmonies, and slower, richly emotional downtempo interludes.

For Seyquan Mack, chairman (and self-proclaimed “head bitch”) of OCBMG and third year double-degree student, these spirituals are more than melodies. Mack, who cut his teeth singing spirituals in high school, told The Grape that he “[thinks] about the experiences of the people … who came before” when he’s performing these works. The spirituals, which touched on themes of enslavement, struggle, liberation, and Christian faith reflect the importance of these themes in African-American history.

Both Mack and DaQuan Williams, a third year in the musical studies program, discussed the importance of constant change and adaptation in spirituals. “A lot of the aesthetic is improvisation and improving on the past,” said Mack. Improvisation is integral to both “folk spirituals,” which, according to Williams, originated with slaves and are transmitted orally, and to “arranged spirituals,” the category of spirituals which OCBMG performed on Thursday, which are inscribed on paper using the Western system of notation. The fusion of a “black aesthetic [with a] Western art form” makes spirituals distinct forms, said Mack.

The concert was part of “Liberation is This,” a series of events celebrating black history month at Oberlin this year. Fortunately for those who missed it, it wasn’t the only opportunity to see OCBMG members perform this February. There will also be a performance during the intermission at “Black by Popular Demand: The BHM Fashion Show.”

In addition, Abromeit teased three more upcoming Ref Desk concerts, one for each forthcoming month this semester. March will bring a “flamenco fest,” April a “bass bash,” and May will feature a performance capping off the work of the current class on “tonality in early music.”

Williams also encourages students to attend the educational lectures during black history month, which will shed light on many African-American historical figures, including those in the music and music journalism industries, who are all too frequently unacknowledged.