Ropeadope announces the eponymous debut of Lowcountry, a cultural artifact of southern folk oral histories and celebration of Gullah culture, due out July 28, 2023
Ropeadope is thrilled to announce the July 28, 2023 release of Lowcountry, the eponymous debut release from the new collective of Gullah Singers and storytellers Gracie Gadsen, Rosa Murray, Joseph Murray, and Ron Daise, co-lead by percussionist Quentin E. Baxter and composer/trumpeter Matt White. A foray into southern folk traditions, Lowcountry archives these Gullah stories and histories beside White’s vigorous 13-piece ensemble orchestrations. Some of South Carolina’s finest creatives impart their seasoned facilities and heritage onto Lowcountry, including saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Charlton Singleton. The output is a requiem of South Carolina’s rich musical legacy and a vital cultural artifact made possible by White’s 2019 receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship Award in music composition.
The Gullah are an African American ethnic group who predominantly reside in the Lowcountry region of the United States: Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and within the coastal plain of the Sea Islands, which includes St. Helena Island. After finishing his Doctorate in Musical Arts at the University Miami, White took a job at Coastal Carolina University in 2012, teaching and managing the campus recording studio on the side. It was at the studio where he would encounter Dr. Eric Crawford, who recruited White to assist taping field recordings in St. Helena that year. What began as a one-off opportunity morphed into a year of traveling together pro bono. The journey yielded about 20 hours of recordings and a shared hope of returning the masters to younger generations of Gullah families as a means of conservancy.
Since then, the National Park Service, National Archive and the National Endowment for the Humanities have each taken a stake in supporting White and Crawford’s remarkable contributions. Along with preserving and archiving these histories, contemporizing and presenting them to younger audiences became another priority for White. Come 2019, White’s prestigious Guggenheim reception endorsed his return to St. Helena and further collection of recordings that would become the bedrock of Lowcountry.
The collective was built from the center out, with the magnanimous, GRAMMY® award-winning drummer Quentin E. Baxter at its core. A sixth generation griot in the Gullah community and Charleston native, Baxter is featured as a percussionist and co-producer of Lowcountry. From there, it was essential for the personnel to be a proper assemblage of Southern musicians, composers and natives, such as featured saxophonist and South Carolina native Chris Potter. “I wanted the project to have a certain weight and vibrancy, so I orchestrated for strings as well,” White notes.
The 9-track output is triumphant, rhythmically vibrant and carefully orchestrated. It begins with St. Helena-born vocalist Ron Daise’s poetry on “Forgotten Moments” which contextualizes the degree of the album’s forthcoming stories. “Welcome/Buzzard Lope” ensues with narrative introductions from Ron Daise, Gracie Gadsen, Rosa Murray and Joseph Murray. The arrangement of an old shouting song, as performed by Bessie Jones here features solos by White and alto saxophonist Michael Thomas. By slightly modulating his horn at each repeated melody, White implements the integral praise house service tradition of call and response.
“Aye Neva” introduces another old ring shout, “Aye Neva”, typically sung in the morning. The didactic shouting song translates to “Hey Neighbor! Look at Day. Day come clean”, a Gullah phrase referring to the sunrise. The jubilant tune is commanded by Chris Potter on tenor sax, prompting the listeners to revel in the glory and spirit of an early morning. In a typical praise house service, song leaders must “Raise the Hymn” (give the congregation the meter and hymnal number then recite scripture) before they can raise (sing) it. This short piece is an overture with elements of all the compositions interspersed. As Gracie says, “If you can’t raise the hymn, don’t line it!” A solo by violinist Micah Gangwer in the last phrase hints at the next hymn “Were You There?,” an impassioned, epic harmony and movement.
Extracted from a traditional watch night service, “Watchman” re-enacts the type of prayer that takes place in the church on New Year’s Eve, where prayers are held until midnight. Recorded in her home, White notes Rosa Murray’s steady-tempoed performance, which allowed for the arrangement to take on a stylish contemporary outfit with mixed meter bars and bell tones. The watchnight traditions harken back to Reconstruction, which Ron Daise alludes to while reciting the Emancipation Proclamation against Baxter’s drum solo. “Cheraw” is a tribute to the South Carolina-born jazz hero Dizzy Gillespie’s hometown. Featuring Charleston native and trumpeter Charlton Singleton, the tune references several compositions within the jazz hero’s vast catalog. The ensemble is pared down to a quintet for the album’s most straight ahead selection, “Prayed Up.” Here, Rosa discusses a rite-of-passage in the Gullah community: going out into the wilderness in order to experience a successful vision.
To resolve this sweeping enterprise, White identifies the most recognizable Gullah hymn “Kumbaya”, which translates to “Come By Here”, at the close of Lowcountry. The comprehensive arrangement incorporates a traditional shout rhythm as an entryway, which progresses through the styling of shifting string harmonies, layered pizzicatos and an extended flugelhorn solo. White adds: “I don’t think you can do a Gullah album without some type of reference to this song, and I think this is a unique take and a great way to close out the album while keeping a feeling of the story continuing.”
More about Lowcountry
Lowcountry is a collaborative ensemble featuring the St. Helena Island Singers (Gracie Gadsen, Rosa Murray, and Joseph Murray), drummer Quentin E. Baxter, narrator Ron Daise, and composer/trumpeter Matt White. Their self-titled debut album was made possible by a Guggenheim Fellowship Matt received in 2019 to record and re-imagine traditional Gullah songs and oral histories by developing extended compositions around field recordings of Gracie, Rosa, and Joseph for a 13-person ensemble, featuring saxophonist and South Carolina native Chris Potter.
Since 2012 Matt has been working with his research partner Dr. Eric Crawford documenting and archiving the songs and oral histories of Gullah Elders, particularly those on St. Helena Island. These songs are carried through the oral tradition, so elders who “line and raise” the songs learned the music from their elders, who learned it from their elders, and so forth. Given the remote locations of many of these communities, it can be a picture of what musical traditions sounded like far back through multiple generations.
Quentin E. Baxter is a drummer, composer, and producer who comes from a lineage of master drummers. He is a member of the two-time GRAMMY® award winning group Ranky Tanky and is one of the most important musicians in the south, performing with a variety of artists in various genres.
Ron Daise is perhaps best known as the creator and star of the children’s show “Gullah Gullah Island.” He is an author, educator, performer, and baker born and raised on St. Helena Island. He has spent his life sharing the depth and beauty of Gullah culture and traditions in a variety of mediums.
Trumpeter/Composer Matt White is the chair of jazz studies at the University of South Carolina. His music has been described as “rhythmically brash and invigorating” by the Washington Post, with “a knack for sweeping, cinematic statements” by Downbeat Magazine. His music and research work focuses on reimagining southern music traditions, in that capacity he has worked with the NEH, the National Park Service, and the SCArts Commission on various musical and educational projects.
- Forgotten Moments
- Welcome/Buzzard Lope
- Aye Neva
- Raise the Hymn
- Were You There?
- Prayed Up
- Come By Here