Spirituals shaped singer's life

For more than two decades, Josephine "Jo" Brown has been the leading force in ARISE, a local group that continues the tradition of singing spirituals.

At 81, she has said it is time to retire.

But friends and supporters say she's left a singing legacy that promises to continue for many years to come. Longtime Wichitans may remember that Brown served as the first African-American woman elected to the Wichita Board of Education. In recent decades, it has been through her passion for a unique form of singing that other Wichitans and Kansans have come to know her.

"I would say Jo Brown has worked tirelessly over the past 22 years to pull a community group together that takes a lot of nurturing, coaxing and encouragement," said Huron Breaux, director of worship at Holy Savior Catholic Church and the new director of ARISE. "She leaves that perseverance with this group. It is stamped on the hearts of everyone in there. A good number of the people are well along in age but they love it. They have music in their hearts to do more performances — and Jo is the gift bearer of that."

ARISE stands for African Americans Renewing Interest in Spirituals Ensemble. The group specializes in an 18th-century singing form that often uses eight-part harmonies, Breaux said, but the technique is disappearing with time. He estimates no more than 10 or 15 groups of this type still exist in the nation.

"It is a very technical music, you don't just pick it up through osmosis," Breaux said. "It is concertized arrangements of African-American spiritual music."

This genre of music is often associated with groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers who traveled Europe in the late 19th century presenting concerts and were the subject of an episode on the PBS series "The American Experience."

Spirituals were often sung by slaves as spontaneous expressions of life. They emerged as folk songs. ARISE has a tradition of taking those songs up a notch.

"It is like the sounds and arrangements are taken and put into a microscope and dissected and woven together for different sounds and things that would be Eurocentric in terms of what we think of classical music," Breaux said. "They are concertized arrangements of folk music."

Brown said she learned the art form growing up in St. Louis, by attending her local church and studying it in college.

"I was born and raised on them," she said. "I had a professor who really pushed the spirituals and the stories behind them."

Sharon Hill Cranford, a spiritual scholar and ARISE charter member, said the group, which recently received nonprofit status, will be able to continue educating more generations about the music.

On Dec. 5, the group presented a concert at the Mary Jane Teall Theater at Century II honoring Brown.

The group's next major appearance is scheduled in January at Kansas Gov.- elect Sam Brownback's inauguration.

Brown said it was important for her to keep the singing tradition alive.

"You'd be surprised at the number of older people who come up with tears in their eyes because they haven't heard anything like that in a long time. I think we are losing a lot of things we ought not to lose."