A Gullah-themed music and storytelling group that has toured Europe and entertained presidents and prime ministers is getting a new leader.
Marlena Smalls, who created the Hallelujah Singers in 1991 to spread understanding of the Gullah culture, is preparing to hand over some duties to member John Simmons.
"I am not quitting; I am not ending my years of working with Gullah; I am just moving into another place," Smalls, 65, said recently.
She likened Simmons to a co-leader with whom she will stand "side by side."
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She plans to introduce him Sunday during the group's annual Christmas show, "A Gullah Christmas," at Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton.
"I can't think of anyone any better than John Simmons to start working with the choir, helping me to select music, helping me to critique and design our shows," she said.
Simmons, 24, learned of the singers when he was an usher for a show at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina on Hilton Head Island. He auditioned for the group almost five years ago, during his freshman year at South Carolina State University. He made the cut and toured with the group through Spain and Portugal. He officially joined when they returned to the U.S.
"The thing I like about the Hallelujah Singers is the essence and soulfulness of the Gullah music and storytelling," said Simmons, who lives in Okatie. "It's why I fell in love with the group, because of the storytelling and (its) improvisational nature."
Smalls realized Simmons would make a good leader after a recent performance in Bermuda. Although the show went well, she said its format was a little too "locked in." Simmons, she said, called her on it.
"At that point, I realized that this young man understood Gullah," she said.
The group has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe during its 21-year history and in 2004 performed for world leaders during a G-8 Summit on Sea Island, Ga.
Smalls will retain creative authority over the group, which uses Gullah history, language and songs during its performances. Some songs are performed a cappella and some have musical accompaniment. Other shows, such as the upcoming Christmas event, feature a full choir.
Simmons' elevated presence with the singers already is evident. He persuaded Smalls to host the Christmas show again this year and helped select music and other elements. He also found the venue, did the marketing and handled other details.
Simmons expects to remain true to the group's traditional elements. However, he wants to explore different musical styles that enhance the storytelling and historical aspects of each performance.
"It's more, mixing the old with the new," he said.