Discovering musical roots

Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir to perform Friday, Sept. 23

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

Linda Tillery spent two decades singing rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll in the San Francisco Bay area, before she finally found her focus one night on PBS.

She was flipping between channels and came across a performance of two African-American singers, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Normal, singing early black spirituals. It was an awakening, to say the least.

"I started thinking, 'I know all these songs,'" she said. "Some of this stuff my grandfather used to sing, or I'd heard on Sunday morning. It was just that I hadn't focused on spirituals or work songs or any of that roots music. I wasn't a folkie."

Nowadays, she is, at least as "folk" pertains to that broad range of black roots music in the antebellum United States.

Tillery's 13-year-old, five-member Oakland-based voice-and-percussion Cultural Heritage Choir performs spirituals, field hollers, ring shouts, work songs, slave songs and chants, and other survival music with distinct polyrhythms, layered harmo-nies, repetitive verse and call-and-response.

The group performs at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23.

Where: Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.

"I wanted music that was somewhere between African and African-American," Tillery said. "I think it's important that people know the influence of African culture in the mainstream American culture is profound, especially in music. It's basically impossible to hear popular music and not hear the African influence, and that includes rock, hip-hop, rhythm and blues. It all started in the field."

Tillery grew up in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco, adjacent to the Castro and the Mission districts. Her parents were from Texas, as were most of their friends. She learned to dance from the adults in her life, and she learned to appreciate jazz and Texas blues from her parents' record collection. By the time she was 3, she could sing the entire arrangement of "April in the Park," by Count Basie and his Orchestra.

"I loved the sound of the acoustical tiles in our bathroom, and I really liked Ethel Merman because she had that big, almost obnoxious voice," Tillery said. "I would go in the bathroom and try to imitate her, singing 'There's No Business Like Show Business.'"

After high school, Tillery took a 9-to-5 job, but kept one eye on the classifieds, hoping to find her true calling. It showed up one day in 1969 in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Loading Zone, a group of Berkeley hippies that was one of the first white soul bands to emerge in the Bay Area scene, had just signed to RCA. They were looking for a lead singer.

Tillery tried out, and was asked to join the band. She was 19, and not at all a hippie or even yet progressive. But by her second gig with the band, at the Fillmore Auditorium, she was sharing the bill with Phil Ochs, Big Momma Thornton, Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver.

"(Loading Zone) had already formed a strong political base. They were very progressive in their thinking, and they had already been through their drug thing, which was really good for me," Tillery said. "It was great to be in that environment and learn about the world and people and also learn a lot about music."

Tillery sang with Loading Zone for almost three years. In the three decades since, she's been a featured member of Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra, Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra and the Solid Senders, and performed on more than 100 recordings with artists such as Boz Skaggs, Turtle Island String Quartet, Huey Lewis and the News, Santana, Kenny Loggins, Taj Mahal, Kelly Joe Phelps, Richie Havens and countless others.

After the PBS-inspired breakthrough in 1990, she began studying the music of the antebellum United States. Her research took her to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, and the folk music catalog of the Library of Congress. She was introduced to the field recordings of the Lomaxes and the ethnomusicology studies of Eileen Southern and Bernie Johnson Reagon.

Tillery also wanted to talk to the musicians themselves. She traveled to the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia to find people who had performed Gullah music in the manner that it was done 200 years ago.

The style, somewhat popularized by groups such as the Georgia Sea Island Singers, McIntosh County Shouters and The Moving Star Hall Singers, is known for its distinct accents and cadences. It often features hand claps, stick pounding and ring shouts.

"The people down there are very guarded," Tillery said. "They've basically been raided by culture vultures who have gone down and want to hear some of their songs, and next thing you know, the songs appear on somebody's tape and the people haven't been paid for it.

"These people are the descendants of slaves who used to live on those islands," she said. "You talk about 'I got rhythm.' The Gullah music is still more tied to its African origins than mainland African-American roots music, and that's because those slaves were able to sneak away. They would have secret meetings and secret services where they would play the drums, and they pretty much do it in the old African ways."

Tillery sent a letter out to 13 musician friends asking if they would participate in an exploratory experimental gig of spirituals. After that first concert, in 1991, she decided she wanted to continue. The group became local, within a 10- to 15-mile radius of her home.

Three members of the group - Rhonda Bening, Elouise Burrell and Melanie DeMore - have been with Tillery for 13 years. Nicolas Bearde is the newest member.

"I wanted to find singers who really treasured these songs," Tillery said. "We're not talking about, 'Baby, I love you, let's get down tonight, let me rub you down.' These songs celebrate a rite of passage, and remind us of pain and give us hope. This is something I choose for myself, and it's something that really means a lot to me."

The choir now has a list of between 60 and 70 songs. Many of them are based on field recordings, but include Tillery's arrangement for choir. The traditional arrangements often included one or two people singing, and maybe hand claps.

"A lot of the music that comes from Georgia and South Carolina is sung in unison, and so it has this kind of haunting quality and it really gets in your bones," Tillery said. "Certainly in the United States you're not going to hear a whole lot of that stuff, but maybe some day you might hear a video or recognize a song that hits you right in the center of your heart. We all have a cellular memory of things that are important to us, and my genetics respond to certain sounds. We all have that in us, we're just out of practice. Music is one of the ways to access it."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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