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Hallelujah Singers embody Gullah culture


To learn about the Gullah you can read up on their history, study their art, or listen to them speak.

But to truly understand them -- to feel what it means to be Gullah -- just listen to The Hallelujah Singers.

Founded in 1990 by Marlena Smalls, this Beaufort-based ensemble showcases the African-American culture of the native Sea Islanders - or Gullah - through its infectious, high-energy Gullah music.

The group's concerts combine singing with storytelling, helping to explain in a uniquely historic and cultural manner who the Gullah are and what influence they continue to have on today's culture.

"Gullah" is an Angola-based word meaning "a people" and is used to describe the descendants of the West Africans brought to America between the mid-1600s and 1800s.

"Gullah puts a face on the African in America and fills in the missing history of the man. Before we learned about the Gullah culture, the African was just a former slave, but understanding Gullah is the key to humanizing the race and showing that he came to this country with his own history, his own rituals and customs," Smalls said.

To date, the group has recorded three CDs featuring the African rhythms of the Gullah culture.

The first recording, "Gullah -- Songs of Hope, Faith & Freedom," features plantation melodies and spiritual songs. In 1998, they released "Joy - A Gullah Christmas," and last year the group released "Carry Me Home," which features Gullah melodies that span the period of history between the 1860s and the birth of the blues in the 1920s.

In the last several years, The Hallelujah Singers gained national recognition with appearances on ABC's "Good Morning, America" and NBC's "Today Show." The group also has been featured on TNN's "The Crook and Chase Show," and in 1994 they appeared in the Academy Award-winning motion picture "Forrest Gump" with Smalls playing Bubba's Mama.

However, these appearances pale in comparison to the recent nomination by South Carolina Congressman Floyd Spence for The Hallelujah Singers to represent the state in the Bicentennial Celebration of the Library of Congress, with one of the group's concerts being preserved in the Library's American Folklife Center.

Smalls has used that newfound fame to educate and enlighten audiences throughout the country about the history of Gullah culture and language.

"When I can learn more about the man I can better understand what he contributed to this thing we call 'life' and therefore, as an African-American, I can better understand myself. And before I can expect you to understand me I must understand myself."

The group is the resident choral company for the Self Family Arts Center and they have standing engagements each year.

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