Join Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman on a personal journey and historical quest as she performs an intensely powerful selection of spirituals. TV episodes air Fridays, Feb. 5, 12, 19 and 26 at 10pm ET / 7:30pm PT. The feature documentary airs Monday, Feb. 15 at Midnight ET/9pm PT and Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT.

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Our Songs

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Back on VisionTV!

Our Songs

Join Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman on a personal journey and historical quest as she performs an intensely powerful selection of spirituals. TV episodes air Fridays, Feb. 5, 12, 19 and 26 at 10pm ET / 7:30pm PT. The feature documentary airs Monday, Feb. 15 at Midnight ET/9pm PT and Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT.

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Who am I?

By Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning Canadian soprano who is recognized around the world for her spectacular voice, innate musicianship, magnificent performance style and vibrant personality. She has shared the stage with the likes of Bill Gates and former U.S. President Bill Clinton and given performances for Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Queen Elizabeth II. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, 3.2 billion television viewers from across the globe witnessed her singing during the Opening Ceremonies. Her musical range encompasses everything from gospel hymns and jazz standards to classical music, as you will see for yourself throughout this website.

I started classical piano and singing lessons when I was seven years old. Now I am a classically trained opera singer. I was strongly influenced musically by the Brunswick Street Baptist Church, where I grew up watching my teacher perform every other Sunday. He was a professional musician and from there my lessons began. Getting that sort of musical engagement at such a young age was essential – it encouraged me and made me realize that going into classical music was possible. Once I dove into classical music, it consumed me.

From the outside, classical music can seem extremely confining. There are a lot of rules required to perfect the technique – but the result can be extremely beautiful. You must allow the rules to free you instead of constrain you.

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In classical music you’re a part of this huge tradition of singers and musicians who have come before you. The genre spans centuries and reflects many societies, so there is a lot I can draw from. I’m standing on the shoulders of some pretty great people. It allows me to be better than I actually am. But now that I’m 37, I want to expand on what I know. I’ve lived with this voice for so long that as my life experiences expand – challenging, joyful and opulent – I can’t help but want more. So now I have begun to explore African American spirituals.

My exploration of African-American spirituals is a way for me to challenge my classically trained mind. It is helping me to become a better musician. But there is another reason why spirituals are so important to me. I wanted to explore this repertoire because it’s dear to my heart. These spirituals are close to my Christian faith. They are also a very important part of my family’s history. It is the music of my people. My ancestors were stolen from Africa and sold into slavery in the United States before finding freedom in Nova Scotia. The spirituals were born out of a time when my people were oppressed and needed to find a way not only to communicate with each other, but also to express themselves. They created a powerful snapshot of their lives that still resonates with people today. The reason the songs survived so long is because of their immediacy. They have the universality of a mournful yet hopeful existence. They have strength. Every group of people who have held their elbows out to create room for themselves has these kinds of songs. My people have spirituals, which played a huge part in how my ancestors came to be here – free, no longer owned, no longer stolen – on the east coast of Canada.

Spirituals played a huge part in how my ancestors came to be here – free, no longer owned – on the east coast of Canada

I believe that life is about seeking freedom. Learning to be free is a lifelong process. I had to work for the freedom that I experience now. I try to feel as free as possible in all of my roles as a Christian, a human, a musician, a mom, and a wife, but some areas of my life are freer than others. Finding a way to let God control what can be controlled is helpful. It is so liberating for me. I don’t have to worry; His work is done with or without me. I’ve begun to realize that nothing is a mistake and I’m clearly meant to be here because I’ve been close to death several times. I can’t control things but I can react to things and I must do something with the time and the relationships I have.

Chalet Studio:
From Rush to Measha

By David Chester, founder of Chalet Studio, a residential recording studio that has worked with some of Canada’s top artists such as Rush, Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo and Jane Siberry. Most recently Measha Brueggergosman recorded some of the Songs of Freedom repertoire at Chalet.

Chalet Studio started out as a dream. It began with a search for property near Toronto. At first, everything was too expensive, until I noticed a property in Durham that had a stunning view of Lake Ontario and 40 acres of land. It was in the country but only 45 minutes from the city.

I’ve always loved the concept of a residential studio – a place where artists could stay as well as work, so they get away from it all in a place that inspires creativity. I wanted big windows so artists could be surrounded by nature. Most recording engineers toil in downtown studios with no connection to the natural environment. But in a country studio, you simply have to look out a window to connect with the natural world.

Now, as I look back at all the memorable sessions we’ve had in Chalet’s 30-year history, it seems unbelievable we have come this far. It wasn’t easy to get started. I was 25 years old at the time and I had just finished studying music at Carleton, York and Humber and spending several years with my band on the road. My wife, Sheila-Marie Richardson (“She” for short) and I were starting from the ground up, so we faced many hurdles, such as trying to attract staff and clients into the countryside and the costs of recording gear and building a professional-quality soundproof studio.

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Chalet needed its first big client to put us on the map. We set our sights on Rush, one of the most recognizable bands in Canada. After many attempts at contacting their management, they told us our equipment wasn’t up to standard. They sent the long list of gear Chalet would need to get their business (and still, there were no guarantees).

I decided to go big or go home. I “rolled the bones” and re-mortgaged everything, purchased the needed equipment – and in the end one of Canada’s most iconic bands spent almost five months on their album Presto in our studio. To accommodate Rush we supplied a sound engineer, gourmet chef, daily maid service and a “handy man.” They always had a creative project on the go outside of their music, like “decorating” our old Dodge station wagon. Over time they came back to write three more records.

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In 2001, She and I decided to take Chalet to the next level – we moved there permanently and turned it into a bed and breakfast as well as recording studio. With my family there, it was not uncommon for us to sit down at breakfast (or brunch, given that they were musicians) with the band in recording. This was something that many families would not be able to handle, but musicians are, as a rule, very polite and respectful, and really interesting people. To this day, we still grow wonderful friendships with many of our guests.

There are always challenges to deal with when you are running your own business, but because of our intense love of the space, the music created here and the people we meet, we continue to share our special way of life with others at the Chalet. We are hugely grateful for the many wonderful connections it continues to present.

we often grow wonderful friendships with many of our musical guests

And Measha is definitely one of those wonderful connections. She first came to Chalet in July 2014 to record her CD Christmas. Hosting Measha a few months later for Songs of Freedom was an extraordinary experience. Measha brought her own energy and intensity to the project, which was so inspiring. She is so talented; every person in the room was in awe while she sang. She has such control over her voice and can switch effortlessly from opera to jazz to pop to spirituals.

When Measha was singing spirituals, it felt as if she was channeling a deep history of pain and struggle, and yet an astounding beauty resonated from her. It is deeply moving music, and, for these reasons, has lasted the test of time.
 


 

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The Meaning of Music

By Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning Canadian soprano whose musical range encompasses everything from gospel hymns and jazz standards to classical music. Before beginning her journey into the world of spirituals, Brueggergosman discusses the significance of music in her life.

There are some people for whom classical music is their natural state of mind. They listen to it, they eat, sleep and breathe it and they don’t exist outside of it. I’m not like that. I like to maintain some objectivity. I like to see it in the context of other forms of music and other musicians. Coming from a classical music tradition, I am always grateful when I get to explore other types of music together with musicians whose focus isn’t classical music but who play mostly jazz, or country or blues, etc. Like here at the Chalet.

The musicians that I get to play with here are absolutely terrific. Sometimes they render me speechless. I go to them to learn more and just try to keep up. Singing non-classical music can be terrifying because the musicians I’m working with are so good. But they have pulled me forward. They have squeezed me out of the box.

Recording classical music is a spiritual experience

Recording classical music is a spiritual experience. A lot of bodies, histories, insecurities and strengths are coming together in the same room, and I’m usually at the centre of it. I’m the soloist. I’m usually the reason that all of these people have come together, so I feel responsible for the atmosphere in the room. I feel very comfortable creating a dynamic for a group and dictating the tenor of a room. You can’t be a performer and not care about the state of the room where you’re performing. Eventually you get to the aspect of your technique that involves reading, guiding and molding the experience in a room. And you have to believe that you have that much sway and influence over how people feel.

I sing to captivate an audience. They are glued to their seats and I’m the only one they’re looking at. When I am the focus of people’s attention, I like my audience to know that I showed up on purpose, for them. I’ve learned to take that attention and run with it. And I want people to know how grateful I am that they’re there.

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African-American Spirituals:
Music of the Slaves

By Calvin Earl, writer, lecturer, composer and ambassador for the legacy and teachings of African American spirituals and the oral history of the slaves. In 2007 he spearheaded a movement that encouraged the U.S. Congress to unanimously vote to recognize African-American spirituals as a national treasure and to honor the slaves for their contributions to the United States.

For thousands of years, human beings from around the world have sought comfort and connection. We build communities and seek safety, comfort and guidance through different practices like mantras, religious beliefs and non-religious practices; it was no different for the African slaves first arriving in the North American colonies in 1619. Throughout history and until 1865 when legal slavery came to an end in the United States, slaves were only considered three-fifths human. They were not allowed to have a voice, which made it difficult for them to have that essential outlet we all need to release our fears and burdens. They were not afforded the time or place to worship, build community or seek comfort and safety, so they created an original music to fulfill these needs. Slaves carved a place in history by creating the original music we know today as spirituals.

Spirituals are a rare and distinctive type of song, a song of the human spirit created by enslaved Africans in and on their way to the United States. Spirituals are the voice of slaves expressing their own humanity through song. The true essence of any spiritual is that sacred inner voice of a slave seeking to connect with the source of all creation and to tell their story and have their very existence avowed. This music encouraged the slaves to stay focused on freedom, because the songs affirmed that one day it would belong to them. These songs encompass a gut-wrenching universal cry for freedom that all humanity seeks across time – the emotion is pure, raw and unadulterated.

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One of the most powerful emotions to drive humanity is our deeply rooted yearning to have our voices heard and acknowledged. By connecting to each other through song, slaves were able to heal their pain, teach their young, record their history and communicate life-saving messages. Literally speaking, the lyrics of many spirituals facilitated secret conversations between slaves without alerting their masters and arousing suspicion. Slaves often used spirituals as a tool for navigation and advice about the Underground Railroad, a 19th century network of paths and safe houses in the United States that led escaping slaves to freedom in what would become Canada.

The true essence of any spiritual is that sacred inner voice of a slave seeking to have their very existence avowed

According to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both escaped slaves and leaders of the abolitionist movement, it was widely known to slaves that north of the American border was a refuge from slavery. Spirituals had a dual meaning for slaves as both a guide to the Underground Railroad and to life. For instance, in the spiritual “I’m on My Way to Canaan Land,” the word “Canaan” not only meant Heaven, it also meant north and specifically it referred to the British colonies that became Canada. Once across the border, former slaves and their families continued to sing the songs of their ancestors, and the songs were passed down orally through the generations. As new members of the community in places like Upper Canada, escaped slaves introduced these songs to the local culture.

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If you listen to the lyrics, most spirituals refer to death or crossing over into an afterlife where slavery doesn’t exist; the secret meaning behind this told slaves, “If you use the Underground Railroad, you don’t have to die to remove yourself from slavery.” That is true for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The secret code in this song is the word “low,” which referred to the Deep South. In other words, the song was saying, “Lift me out of the South and out of slavery and carry me to freedom in the North.”

“Go Down Moses” was a forbidden song for the slaves, as their masters knew it was a song about escaping slavery. The slaves connected with the Biblical story of Moses leading his people to freedom. The song enlivened and inspired enslaved people and made it harder for their masters to control them. Harriet Tubman, who became known as the Moses of her people, would often defy her masters and sing that song at the top of her lungs.

The spiritual “Wade in the Water” is filled with specific instructions for escaping slaves. For an example right from the title, the song was providing a tip, telling escaping slaves that if they could wade in water, the hound dogs that slave masters sent out to find them wouldn’t be able to pick up their scent. The spiritual “Deep River” has a similar theme. In it, the Jordan River is code for the Ohio River; if you could get across the Ohio River you could live in freedom.

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When the Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land in 1865, American culture underwent major transformation, and several years later that also became true for the spirituals. The musical art forms of jazz, blues, R&B and gospel began to appear, and all of these genres found their inspiration and foundation in the original sound of the spirituals. Gradually, the spirituals themselves were sung less and less frequently.

As the years passed, the spirituals were transformed into a musical performance genre under the direction of Ella Sheppard, a former slave who eventually became choir director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University. Fisk, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, provided educational opportunities to former slaves so they could better equip themselves to become prosperous citizens. The school was facing financial problems, and so with great trepidation and deep concern for the integrity of the spirituals, Sheppard finally made the painstaking decision to transform them into a choir format to save the university. With that, the Jubilee Singers, a nine-member student chorus, brought the spirituals to a world audience, which allowed them to send money back to the college during tours. It is important to note that any written musical arrangement of a spiritual is not authentic to the original intention of this musical genre, since by definition spirituals are passed on orally, but Ella took great care when reinterpreting these songs.

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I learned to love the spirituals during my humble beginnings. I grew up extremely poor, in a sharecropper’s cabin with eight siblings. We didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing, and too many times we went without food. We moved frequently because my parents couldn’t afford rent; however, I vividly remember the first time I played a spiritual on my guitar. In that moment, the fears I had went away and I felt secure within myself. The stigma of growing up poor seemed to disappear. Each time I played, the spirituals made me feel whole again.

What inspires me most about the spirituals is that the slaves created this magnificent music in the midst of their own despair while in bondage. Their music was their voice. It was a vision of hope and courage beyond measure. As a descendant of slaves myself, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride in the slaves’ musical accomplishments and their contribution to building a nation. For me the spirituals taught me to never give up. When someone tells me I can’t do something, I refuse to accept that outcome. Instead I go within and listen to my heart.

Today I continue to do concerts and lectures on this subject, and welcome people to visit my website calvinearl.com for further information on the history of the African-American spirituals.


 

Connecting Histories

By Aaron Davis, a composer, arranger and piano player. Aaron has been making music his entire life and is inspired by many genres, including jazz, classical, pop and world music. He has done orchestral and choral arrangements for many artists, including Holly Cole, Alison Krauss, Natalie McMaster, and Canadian Brass, and has scored more than 100 films. In 2006 Aaron started arranging and playing with singer Measha Brueggergosman.

I learned a lot from Songs of Freedom. The challenge of re-interpreting these spirituals was a welcome one for me. I never knew that “Amazing Grace” was written by the captain of a slave ship! I never knew that some spirituals, like “Wade in the Water,” had secrets in them that would help slaves escape to freedom. As a child I sang some of these songs with my family, such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses.” Other songs, like “Deep River” and “I Surrender All” were introduced to me by Measha.

My mother, Natalie Zemon Davis, is a social historian who is known for her work in the Early Modern period (16th through 18th centuries), where she has studied many aspects of society, including, most recently, the slave trade in Suriname. My father Chandler Davis is a mathematician who also writes poetry and science fiction. My father and his father, my grandfather Horace were active in the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States. Horace was a Birthright Quaker, and his ancestors in that branch of the family were active in the fight against slavery in the United States in the 19th century.

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My great-great-grandfather, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War. He and his brother Edward Needles Hallowell were both commanders in the Massachusetts 54th and 55th, some of the first black regiments fighting the Confederacy. Norwood was wounded in the Battle of Antietam after he was shot in the arm. He continued to fight for fair payment for black soldiers in the Union Army after his injury made it impossible to fight in battle anymore.

His father, Morris Longstreth Hallowell (my great-great-great grandfather) lived in Pennsylvania and ran what was called a station in the Underground Railroad. Slaves on their way north to Canada would stop at his home and would then be transported to the next station in secret.

These Quaker ancestors were abolitionists when being an abolitionist ran contrary to the politics of the time. I’m proud that some of my ancestors stood up to fight against slavery and racism, and hope that in the future people will be judged by their actions and not by the colour of their skin or their ethnic background. I don’t know of any direct connection between my ancestors and Measha’s, but I learned that some of Measha’s ancestors on her mother’s side came to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Below is an excerpt from my great-great-grandfather’s memoirs. He speaks about a time when his house was used as a part of the Underground Railroad.

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When Measha I work together our approach varies from song to song, although usually Measha gives me a list of songs that she would like to sing and I go away and try to re-imagine them. For me this involves an initial step of thinking about the lyrics and figuring out what the melody and basic chord structure should be, as these are sometimes obscured by ornamentation or arrangements in other recordings. I try to keep the original melody intact as much as possible, but look for different harmonic, rhythmic and textural approaches to the music. I try to imagine how Measha would sound singing it. When I come up with something I like, I play it for Measha and she invariably has something to add, subtract or alter. Sometimes she will play references from different musical sources for me to influence the colour of the arrangement. Sometimes she likes what I’ve come up with as is, or sometimes she has a radically different idea that we pursue together.
 


 

Measha first approached me about the possibility of working together in 2006. She was familiar with my arrangement and piano work with the Holly Cole Trio, a group I founded with vocalist Holly Cole and bassist David Piltch in the late 80s. I worked with Measha to arrange a repertoire that fit with both of our musical sensibilities and we performed on BRAVO TV’s Live At The Rehearsal Hall. In 2008 we performed at the Junos. Together, we produced and arranged her CD I’ve Got A Crush On You in 2012.

Measha is an amazing vocal talent. She breathes life and vitality into music with her voice, an instrument that is sweet, rich, expressive and powerful. She welcomes challenges and enjoys mixing idioms, such as singing “Embraceable You” as a reggae tune or “Amazing Grace” with an Appalachian style. She is inherently musical and has many interesting and unexpected ideas.
I invite everyone to visit my website aarondavispiano.com to have a look at my other works.