Voices of El Shaddai
The Voices of El Shaddai transcends South Carolina geographic and musical boundaries. For over twenty-seven years, members from a variety of local church choirs have come together to sing. Their unique repertoire includes both traditional spirituals and contemporary gospel. Most of the members are native South Carolina Sea Islanders and the group's concerts combine Gospel singing with African tonalities and rhythms. One of the primary founders, Gail Ragland, continues to lead the Voices of El Shaddai as they represent the highest practice of performance of Lowcountry Gospel. And from time to time, they combine elements of unique traditional Gullah musical artforms and language which are significant throughout the Lowcountry region in South Carolina. (Please listen to the audio excerpt of "Stay in the Field" Lowcountry Gospel expression versus Gullah "Stay in Da Field" provided from Ms. Ragland.)
The Lowcountry Gospel music of The Voices stems from the oral tradition of the African-American religious experience including spirituals. Historically, this musical form allowed those who could not read an opportunity to participate. Repetition, a call and response pattern, and strong vocals are all prevalent in the music of The Voices. These musical elements, according to musical historians, are based in earlier, 17-19th c. spirituals with melodies similar to those from Africa, also expressing the slave experience. It is well-known that as enslaved Africans worshipped in praise houses - one room buildings which became the center for the Gullah community, many plantation owners did not support the use of drums. Rhythm was captured by hand-clapping and foot-stomping, shouts of phrases and responses, as well as circular dancing. After emancipation from slavery, many churches shifted to Gospel, which included Christian themes and upbeat rhythms. Gospel had a hopeful message with strong vocals and harmonies and Christian lyrics. Today, many Gospel groups such as The Voices use the choir, piano, organ, tambourines, and drums performing music which often has a refrain and syncopated rhythm including hand-clapping. But musicologists state that Gospel may vary according to social and cultural context.
Uniquely based in the Lowcountry, The Voices will sometimes incorporate Gullah phrases with Gospel. The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans who live in the Lowcountry, mainly in the states of South Carolina and Georgia, although the Gullah (sometimes called Geechee) corridor extends from North Carolina to Florida including both the mainland and sea islands. According to Dr. Emory Campbell, former chair, Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and Gullah historian, due to isolated rural living conditions, the Gullah have preserved much of their African language and cultural heritage.
75% of the members of The Voices of El Shaddai are Native Islanders (Gullah- Geechee) and several are multi-generational. Gullah spoken language, folktales and stories as well as spirituals and gospels are passed down from generation to generation. El Shaddai's knowledge of the indigenous musical traditions of the Gullah-Geechee, as well as Gospel, are learned, taught and passed down through generations of family members and community and incorporated into their Lowcountry Gospel performances. The children and grandchildren of current members often attend rehearsals and public performances to obtain first- hand the word pronunciations ("broken- English"), musical rhythms, hand-clapping, repetition, tonalities, patterns, dance movements and costumes of the current members. The intergenerational group rehearses at the historic (tracing its roots to 1865) Queens Chapel AME Church in the Mitchelville area of Hilton Head Island and has the support of its pastor Edward Alston.
As an example of their community participation and commitment to advocating, educating and maintaining traditional Lowcountry Gospel musical artforms, The Voices of El Shaddai have performed for free at the multi-disciplinary community arts festival, "A Taste of Gullah" held each February at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island. Now in its 24th year, "A Taste of Gullah Festival" is a wonderful free and accessible community celebration of Gullah folk life and traditional art and culture presented in partnership with the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association (NIBCAA.) The 'T aste of Gullah" festival, which provides opportunity for artistic expression and community access to Gullah heritage, helps to preserve these cultural traditions and artforms for the Gullah community as well as for all residents and visitors to the area. With a majority of the choir members associated with the Gullah community, The Voices have performed for 23 years at the festival, last year for an audience of almost 1,000 youth and adults. Always attracting new audiences of residents as well as visitors, The Voices support Lowcountry Gospel and Gullah arts exposure, cultural tourism, and education offerings particularly for underserved youth as well as senior adults. They are committed to help raise the visibility of and appreciation for Lowcountry Gospel, as well as Gullah, music and culture.
Regarded as the highest caliber of Lowcountry Gospel, the choir consists of a unique combination of outstanding African - American musical artists from the region. Other respected musical artists including Lavon Stevens and David Kimbell as well as Gullah storyteller/singer Louise M. Cohen (2007 Jean Laney Harris award-winner) have performed with The Voices at the "Taste of Gullah" and at other festivals, various houses of worship as well as at other venues throughout South Carolina. Additionally, costumed in praise house traditional white clothing or in Gullah/African-inspired multicolored hues, The Voices have performed as part of programs for The Gullah Museum, Coastal Discovery Museum, in performance at the Arts Center, for Martin Luther King Day at Congregation Beth Yam, various churches, the Mitchellville Preservation project, as well as at wedding and other community celebrations.