African roots: Marlena Smalls is to perform at City Hall Theatre as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts this Friday and Saturday. *Photo supplied
African roots: Marlena Smalls is to perform at City Hall Theatre as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts this Friday and Saturday. *Photo supplied

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 25: The Gullah culture will be brought vividly to life as vocalist, historian and director Marlena Smalls takes us on a musical journey through West African history.

Smalls, who you may remember as Bubba’s mama in the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump, will be performing as part of the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts Festival at City Hall Theatre on January 27 and 28. Along with the critically acclaimed Hallelujah Singers, she will celebrate the culture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands charting the languages and traditions related to its West African heritage. She will also be singing an array of musical styles from gospel, jazz, blues, contemporary and sacred music.

Smalls formed the Hallelujah Singers in 1990 to keep the stories and songs of Gullah alive.

There is a local connection in the mix too — one of her vocalists Tracee Mullen was born in Bermuda.

Community ties

Gullah are a group of black Americans who have been able to preserve their traditions thanks to geographical isolation, strong community ties and their forefathers’ relative independence from  slave owners. 

During the 1700s, American colonists needed African slaves to help cultivate rice and were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from the “Rice Coast” — the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Gullah people are descended from these slaves and speak a creole language similar to Sierra Leone Krio.

As well as music, there is a strong story-telling element to the culture which will be demonstrated during the show.

Smalls told the Bermuda Sun: “Gullah is the foundation of it all — wherever the West African went he carried his culture with him — the culture of the Gola (people).

“From the beat of the drum to the language to the foods that we eat — it is a West African based culture

“There is this myth that the African always sang a cappella in America because he wasn’t afforded instruments but that was not the norm for him.

“We will sing a capella in the show to represent the position of enslavement in America but that is not to define us — it was just a period of time that a certain group of Africans found themselves to be in.”

Ohio-born Smalls has toured the world with her show and has made several film appearances.

She has performed for no fewer than three American presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. As well as founding the Hallelujah Singers she launched the Gullah Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1985. She was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame and was one of the South Carolina’s National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award winners.

While her repertoire is wide and eclectic, Smalls does tell us that her shows have been compared to those of the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey and the Rock while Smalls says that she has “the passion of Nina Simone”.

The show will hop from a capella, to vocals with instruments and then transform into gospel and negro spiritual, into blues and through to jazz. She will be accompanied by five vocalists as well as saxophone, guitar and percussions. Most of the music in the show has either been written or arranged by Smalls who was brought up in a musical family.

“My mother was a music teacher and a minister of music at a large church and her family was very involved in music, there are over 50 musicians in my family and even more vocalists so it was natural for me. I started voice lessons aged 11 studied music under my mother. She was a master at her craft.

“I have had many influences — I am a product of an African movement mixed with the American emphasis but I guess I speak to my African roots far greater than I do my American.”

What: Marlena Smalls
Where: City Hall Theatre
When: Friday, Jan 27 and Saturday, Jan 28 at 8pm
Tickets: $65 or $25 from www.bermudafestival.org and by calling from the venue one hour before performance. Tickets are also available from BermudaTix outlets All Wrapped Up In Washington Mall, Hamilton and Fabulous Fashions in Heron Bay Plaza, Southampton.