Gullah's Growing Acclaim is Music to Singer's Ears
She has played the Kennedy Center, performed for the Queen of England, appeared on television and film and recorded a concert preserved for posterity in the Library of Congress.
But it wasn't until she heard that she had been included in an SAT question about the Gullah culture that Hallelujah Singers founder and leader Marlena Smalls knew she was well on the way to achieving her mission of educating the world about Gullah.
"It's very encouraging," said Smalls, who has spent the last 17 years performing Gullah music rooted in the rich heritage her West African ancestors brought to the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia more than 300 years ago. "We're moving forward. Someday, Gullah will get its rightful place in the history and archives of America."
Considered by experts to be the purest form of African culture alive among African-Americans today, Gullah was developed by the descendants of the slaves who built a life around the river estuaries and salt marshes of the Lowcountry.
"A lot of the words we say, the dishes we eat, the things we do, came from the Gullah culture," Smalls said. "But we're still no more than a page or two in a third grade social studies book."
A native of Ohio, Smalls took an avid interest in her Gullah heritage after moving to Beaufort with her six children in 1982. The food, the smells, the music she heard in the small island churches, made her feel at home.
"It was like I was supposed to be here," she said.
She landed a job as Beaufort's arts coordinator and soon discovered there were very few artistic opportunities for blacks living in the sea islands. So, she and her mother opened the Lowcountry Cultural Arts Center and began offering voice, piano and dance lessons.
"In three months we had 150 students," said Smalls, a classically trained lyric soprano.
To help raise money for student field trips, she put on a concert featuring the parents of her students. The show was so well received, she was asked to do it again. Smalls penned the name "Hallelujah Singers" and went on to develop a series of concerts on the Gullah way of life focusing on church, harvest and home.
"People didn't have a clear understanding of the Gullah culture back then," Smalls said. "They didn't appreciate the important role it has played in our history."
Using songs and stories about the customs and beliefs of the Gullah people, Smalls brought to life images of slaves turning fields of soil with mule-drawn plows, fishing the inlets and digging for clams in the broad flatlands. Her energetic and animated style, blended with the vibrant voices of her choral ensemble, turned the Hallelujah Singers into one of the region's hottest acts.
As interest in the Gullah culture increased, the singers found themselves performing more and more concerts and venturing farther outside the region. In 1994, they scored one of their biggest gigs, performing in the Tom Hanks' film, "Forrest Gump".
"So many of the members were professionals with nine-to-five jobs, they couldn't keep up with the demanding schedule," Smalls said. "Over time, we went from 25 to 15 to nine to seven and finally to five members."
This summer, the Hallelujah Singers will come full circle when they perform at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, returning to a bigger sound with nine additional vocalists and three musicians.
"We wanted to do something different," Smalls said. "I put together a very special group I call the Hallelujah Chorale to sing with us. Among them is Charles Cherry, one of our original members."
The concert program will include new arrangements of several of their well-known Gullah pieces with a spotlight on blues and jazz numbers.
"I can't tell you where we'll go from here," said Smalls, who will be taking the group to Nigeria this winter for their first concert in Africa. "I leave that up to God. He always directs me, but I don't always listen. I hope at the age of 60 I finally have enough sense to listen."
The Hallelujah Singers will perform three concerts at 8 p.m. July 30, Aug. 6 and 13 in the Elizabeth Wallace Theatre. Tickets are $33 for adults, $24 for children, and can be purchased at the Arts Center box office or with a credit card by calling 842-ARTS (2787). Prices include a $5 facility fee.