Minnesingers pay homage to African American culture in “Roots”

Song with a view: The Minnesingers performed on the island of Korcula, off Croatia on a previous trip. — File photo courtesy of Karen Overtoom

From traditional spirituals and slave songs to a Michael Jackson medley, in their latest show the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Minnesingers will celebrate the contributions of African-American composers, performers, and traditions to American music.

The Minnesingers, the high school vocal and dance group made up of 32 teens, will perform its dance and choral show, “Roots,” this weekend at the Performing Arts Center. The show is split in half: The first portion will feature arrangements for choral groups of a number of songs ranging from traditional to contemporary with accompaniment by Nancy Rogers.

After intermission, the Minnesingers will don costumes and finish with a high energy song and dance performance, choreographed by Lianna Loughman, that should get audience members tapping their feet and singing along to tunes like “Love Potion Number Nine” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The selections range from roots gospel to jazz to Motown to contemporary hits.

The group just recently returned from Croatia where they performed selections from the choral portion of the show at several venues. Musical director Jan Wightman chose the theme in part to introduce a distinctively American sound to audiences in the host country.

“Because it was a travel year, I definitely wanted to do American music,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve covered such a broad spectrum.”

The group was invited to perform five formal concerts in music schools, cathedrals, and at a palace. “Everyone was just welcoming and appreciative, especially when they opened their mouths,” Ms. Wightman said.

The teens also treated bystanders at restaurants, street corners, in front of a cathedra,l and even at the Frankfurt airport to impromptu performances. “It was not my impetus,” she said. “All of a sudden I heard a note and they had started.” These spontaneous concerts have become a tradition for the traveling teens, encouraged by Ms. Wightman. She estimates that they performed impromptu about 15 or 20 times during their trip.

The tour gave the kids the chance to introduce Eastern European audiences to music that originated in this country and also influenced much of contemporary rock and pop. As always, Ms. Wightman thinks of the group as musical ambassadors: “This group was just amazing. They just behaved so well. They give Europeans a vision of American teens that they may not see in TV and movies.”

Vineyard audiences can see the Minnesingers perform this weekend. The choral portion of the program starts off with a medley of traditional spirituals including “Hold On,” “This Train is Bound for Freedom,” and others. The various voices, divided by range, eventually meld the melodies together into a powerful moving piece.

Other spirituals rendered as choral arrangements by the group include “Precious Lord,” “Elijah Rock,” and the 60s protest song, “All My Trials.” Moving on to jazz, the group will perform the energetic jazz standard “Birdland,” which honors the legendary New York jazz club of the same name.

Breaking with tradition, three solos are included in the choral portion of the Minnesingers show this year. Katharine Reid will sing the haunting “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” popularized by Roberta Flack. Stowe Counsell will perform Nat King Cole’s “‘Tis Autumn.” Olivia de Geofroy will sing the soft jazz standard “Misty,” which was written by pianist/composer Erroll Gardner and later, with lyrics, became the signature song for Johnny Mathis.

The first half concludes with the pop song “Africa” by the 80s band Toto. It gives a rousing finish to the set, as well as an introduction to the rock and pop laden second half.

Appropriately, the dance portion kicks off with the song “Underground” from the Broadway musical “Memphis” about the 1950s roots of rock and roll as introduced by African-American musicians.

The other ensemble pieces are the gospel influenced contemporary song “Bottom of the River” and the finale, a tribute to Michael Jackson featuring several hit songs, ends the show with a message of hope and unity.

The dance portion also features a number of solos and duets including “Stand by Me,” “Lean on Me,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” among others.

Ms. Wightman selected the show-stopping Michael Jackson finale, but all of the other dance portion songs were selected by the Minnesingers. The era-appropriate costumes were also provided by a student, Amy Fligor. “I want the kids to have as much ownership of the show as possible,” Ms. Wightman said.

Minnesingers Concerts, Saturday, May 4, 7 pm; Sunday, May 5, 3 pm, M.V. Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $10; $7 seniors/students.