Traveling Shoes: Black Migrations—How Can We Sing in a Strange Land with Tyrone Birkett

Posted by: cobrien, February 14, 2019 3:33 pm
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Tyrone Birkett

Tyrone Birkett became a musician early on—music was in his house and his parents, who saw his interest, enrolled him in the music program at his elementary school.

This Black History Month, he is presenting the program How Can We Sing in a Strange Land at three Queens Library locations.

In How Can We Sing in A Strange Land, the saxophonist/composer and wife Paula Ralph-Birkett on vocals explore the Great Migration through the lens of the Negro spiritual and the freedom songs of the civil rights era. Birkett explains that he was “looking for a way to make the power of the freedom song relevant to a twenty-first century audience.”

He says that, “With the current situation where the people are being disenfranchised and disinherited, we need music to change the atmosphere and affect our consciousness in a positive way.” While Aretha Franklin, minimalism, John Coltrane, and electronica currently inspire him, he first heard freedom songs in church as a child and became interested in the civil rights movement because of them. He believes that music can always facilitate stronger communities—and has mostly performed How Can We Sing in a Strange Land at libraries all across the city.

He explains how music traveled along on black migrations: “As black folk moved from the south into the northern urban cities, they brought their music with them. Negro spirituals became more concertized and formalized after slavery and became part of the repertoire of the urban black middle class in the north and south.” Blues, gospel, and jazz brought from the south challenged this phenomenon. Freedom songs were adapted not just for civil rights, but for labor rights and women’s rights. Birkett calls the child of the civil rights freedom song—“the gospel and jazz that migrated from New Orleans to Chicago, Detroit, and New York”—the postmodern spiritual. 

Both a composer and a performer, Birkett describes composing as “trying to pull the intangible in the tangible realm. What exists only as an idea.” His performances, he says, are about translating what the mind hears and putting it into a shared language. The musician loves the rhythm of language, and says that reading is very important to him; when he was growing up, reading encyclopedias served as a way he could see the world without leaving his home.

“Always humble yourself to get what knowledge and wisdom you don’t have,” says Birkett. “Try as much as possible to get around people who encourage and celebrate your creativity and genius.”

Don’t miss the final two performances of How Can We Sing in a Strange Land:

Saturday, February 16
Rosedale Library

144-20 243 Street

Thursday, February 28
Rochdale Village Library

169-09 137 Avenue, Jamaica

"How Can We Sing in A Strange Land" is just one of our great Traveling Shoes: Black Migrations programs; learn more about all of them!