The Gullah culture of South Carolina’s sea islands will be on display Monday, April 23, when Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers bring their unique combination of music and storytelling to the campus of Western Carolina University.
The group will perform at 7pm in the Grandroom of WCU’s A.K. Hinds University Center. Admission is free to the performance, which is sponsored by the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and Organization of Ebony Students.
Marlena Smalls organized the Hallelujah Singers in 1990. Through their performances, interwoven with music and narration, the group presents a miniature dramatization of some of the unique personages, rituals and ceremonies that played an important part in shaping the Gullah culture.
Gullah is a culture and language developed in West Africa, and then brought to the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Experts consider Gullah to be the purest form of African culture alive among African-Americans today. The Gullah language is a Creole blend of West African and European dialects. Most of the Gullah vocabulary today is of English origin, but grammar and major elements of pronunciation come from a number of West African languages, such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba.
The Hallelujah Singers have recorded three compact discs featuring the African rhythm of the Gullah culture — “Gullah – Songs of Hope, Faith and Freedom,” “Joy – A Gullah Christmas” and “Carry Me Home.” The group has traveled extensively throughout the United States, teaching and entertaining in schools, auditoriums and festivals as part of their “Fa Da Chillun” outreach program. They have performed for Congress, Hillary Rodham Clinton and South Carolina legislators, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, SC.
Movie audiences may recognize the Hallelujah Singers from their appearance in the Academy Award-winning motion picture “Forrest Gump,” which starred Tom Hanks, with Marlena Smalls appearing in the role of Bubba’s Mama. The group also has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The Hallelujah Singers have received many awards for their work in preserving the Gullah culture, including being designated a “Local Legacy of South Carolina” by the U.S. Library of Congress as part of the library’s bicentennial celebration. The group also has received the South Carolina Folk Heritage Advocacy Award, and was named South Carolina Ambassadors of the Year for 1998.
For more information about the Hallelujah Singers’ performance at WCU, contact Jane Adams-Dunford, director of WCU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, at (828) 227-7234.