The congregation sings along with the choir even when they don’t know the words.  Improvised ooo’s and ah’s, moans, shouts and humming fill the spaces. Calls of “yes” and “amen” ring throughout the church.  Every voice discovers its way into the song. Basses walk on every beat, one or two octaves below the sopranos. Altos and tenors find harmony parts that are unwritten and unrehearsed.  The piano pulsates with tambourines, drums, guitar and clapping hands. The spirit lifts all. 

Welcome to gospel music in Black churches across this nation. 

 

Gospel music has always been about the Black community, the neighborhood, the congregation rallying around each other.  Everybody taking care of everybody else. Church was and is the space where people find and express hope, draw inspiration and spread it around, keeping at bay the often insurmountable struggles of everyday survival.  

The life we now bring to these gospel songs is incomplete without honoring the sacred music that preceded it: the spirituals. Spirituals emanated from the heart of antebellum enslaved people as forceful outflowings of religious passion. They speak of life and death, suffering and sorrow, love and judgment, grace and hope, justice and mercy. The chief vehicle for the performance of the African-American spiritual is the human voice, for it provides its contour, rhythm, texture, melody and text.

 

Giving Voice is a musical collaboration building on Evelyn Harris’ experience growing up in the 50s and 60s in Richmond, Virginia, singing in her Baptist church and later with the internationally acclaimed acapella group Sweet Honey In The Rock.  As lead vocalist of Giving Voice, Evelyn, together with the inspired accompaniment of pianist and vocalist Ellen Cogen and vocal harmony specialist Mary Witt, brings that musical tradition alive.  Their performance highlights many pioneering composers of gospel whose music brought together millions of Black Americans fighting for justice and prosperity in the era of Jim Crow.

The Women of Giving Voice

After traveling the world over and recording 10 albums with the internationally acclaimed acapella Black women's ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, Evelyn Harris relocated to Western Massachusetts, establishing herself as a solo artist, teacher, performer, lecturer, stage director and mentor.  Her celebrated collaborations fuse varied instruments, vocalists and musical genres.  Currently, she directs the Ku'umba Women's Choir and is lead vocalist in the blues band, StompBoxTrio.

After traveling the world over and recording 10 albums with the internationally acclaimed acapella Black women's ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, Evelyn Harris relocated to Western Massachusetts, establishing herself as a solo artist, teacher, performer, lecturer, stage director and mentor.  Her celebrated collaborations fuse varied instruments, vocalists and musical genres.  Currently, she directs the Ku'umba Women's Choir and is lead vocalist in the blues band, StompBoxTrio.

Her 18-year tenure with Sweet Honey took her to the Soviet Union, Germany, Cuba, Australia, Kenya, The Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Norway, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Japan, Ecuador, Canada and Mexico.  Her voice gives depth and meaning to every song she touches, an extensive array of blues, jazz, spirituals, gospel and an opera, TRUTH, about the life of Sojourner Truth written for Evelyn by Paula Kimper.

Her stellar compositions include State of Emergency, written in 1987 and nominated for a Grammy .  With Sweet Honey, she recorded and was co-producer for 10 albums on the Flying Fish, Redwood and Warner Brothers labels.  Her involvement in films afforded her the opportunity to record the soundtrack for the acclaimed Haile Gerima film Wilmington 10 - USA 10,000 and narrate the award-winning independent film Voices of Palestine.

Evelyn has dedicated her life to social justice issues and coaching young women musicians at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, MA, run by June Millington and Ann Hackler. 

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Mary Witt grew up in central North Carolina, studying classical piano and french horn.  She became an accomplished harmony singer by performing duets with her older sister and in the Southern Baptist Church choir in their little town.  When her sister got a guitar, they expanded to folk, rock ‘n roll, spirituals and gospel. Mary is the lead singer and bass player in her swing and soul band, The O-Tones, which keeps a busy schedule of performances and dances around the region that support their many recordings.  She has also recorded “Groove Duets,” a collaboration with a dozen singers creating duets of popular tunes and “Fearless, Celebrating Women Singers” with Annie Patterson in preparation for their Spring 2020 Southeast tour.

Mary Witt grew up in central North Carolina, studying classical piano and french horn.  She became an accomplished harmony singer by performing duets with her older sister and in the Southern Baptist Church choir in their little town.  When her sister got a guitar, they expanded to folk, rock ‘n roll, spirituals and gospel. Mary is the lead singer and bass player in her swing and soul band, The O-Tones, which keeps a busy schedule of performances and dances around the region that support their many recordings.  She has also recorded “Groove Duets,” a collaboration with a dozen singers creating duets of popular tunes and “Fearless, Celebrating Women Singers” with Annie Patterson in preparation for their Spring 2020 Southeast tour.

As bandleader for The O-Tones, Mary engages different combinations of performers  for a variety of gigs, from a jazz and blues trio to a 6-piece combo to a 14-piece big band. 

Mary was raised by German parents who lived through all the horrors and prejudice of World War II. In Berlin, her father worked underground, using his medical training to care for injured citizens, and later worked with Amnesty International, advocating for persecuted people around the world. Her mother’s family fled to England, where she translated for the BBC and, after the war, returned to Germany to work with the Americans, decoding German intelligence. These experiences led Mary’s parents to further social justice work, living through segregation then integration in North Carolina in the 60s and 70s. Mary's mother taught conversational German and French and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, and brought world renowned musicians to the local all black elementary school. Both of her parents fought for justice, freedom and equality for black people in their community and throughout the region.     

Through her work with The O-Tones and other musical projects, Mary has helped raise money for food banks, homeless shelters, education funds and other humanitarian and social justice causes.  Her work brings joy to senior communities and fits naturally into her love of music and commitment to community and led to the formation of Giving Voice.

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Ellen Cogen began her musical life performing in orchestras and chamber ensembles and as a professional accompanist from her early teens.  She studied voice and music theory at UMASS Amherst and earned her Masters of Music in Voice Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music.  She has recorded 3 CDs of jazz, originals and arrangements in other styles. Ellen is currently Professor of Music at Holyoke Community College, Visiting Lecturer of Voice at Westfield State College and organist/choir director at Easthampton Congregational Church in Western Massachusetts.

Ellen Cogen began her musical life performing in orchestras and chamber ensembles and as a professional accompanist from her early teens.  She studied voice and music theory at UMASS Amherst and earned her Masters of Music in Voice Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music.  She has recorded 3 CDs of jazz, originals and arrangements in other styles. Ellen is currently Associate Professor of Music at Holyoke Community College, Visiting Lecturer of Voice at Westfield State College and organist/choir director at Easthampton Congregational Church in Western Massachusetts.

Ellen has taught music in the public schools of Western Massachusetts for grades 5 through 12.  In her current position at Holyoke Community College, she directs choral ensembles, teaches jazz voice and leads the music theater workshop. She has served as musical director for professional as well as community and school music theater productions. 

Over the past 25 years, Ellen has served as director of music for several churches. She is the proud mother of two young women: Julia, a singer, and Lily, a writer, and is married to her favorite musical partner, guitarist John Mason.  Ellen and Evelyn have performed a jazz duet and both her skilled singing and sensitive piano playing made her a natural fit for Giving Voice.

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