Musical Threads: Expressions of a People

Title: Musical Threads: Expressions of a People

Performers: Tyron Cooper & Marietta Simpson

Format:  DVD (53 min.)

Released by: WFYI Productions

Release date: 2011



Musical Threads: Expressions of a People is a tidily produced DVD offering a view into the wide world of African American musical expression, via the performing styles of guitarist/vocalist Tyron Cooper and vocalist Marietta Simpson. Cooper and Simpson are a dynamite pairing; they are both fantastic musicians, with Cooper’s intensely technical and yet always comfortable fingerpicking and Simpson’s classically-honed vocals that still reach the earthy heart of vernacular sound. Both are well informed about music within African American culture, from a mixture of lived and professional experience. Cooper, who is completing a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, is also an active session musician and educator who formerly directed the IU Soul Revue and founded Camp S.O.U.L., a pre-college music program. Simpson, a seasoned opera singer and recitalist, is a voice professor at the IU Jacobs School of Music.

The DVD is set up in a very casual, accessible and yet professional arrangement. After an introductory section on the performers and the project, Cooper and Simpson give an explanation of each piece as it relates to them personally as African Americans and as it is contextualized within the broader scope of African American musical culture. The performances are, to use Cooper’s term, quite homey. It sounds as if you’ve just walked into an intimate jam session between these two great musicians. The arrangements written and chosen for this production have a perfect balance of polish and humanity, perhaps best illustrated in Simpson’s a cappela arrangement of “Lord How Come Me Here,” which has the technical control of a trained opera singer’s voice, but the emotion of someone channeling generations of untrained voices who beautifully and powerfully translated their suffering into song.

Another really winning aspect of this DVD is the original compositions that Cooper and Simpson wrote for these performances. While their arrangements of well known songs by Charles Tindley, Johnny Green and others  are all quite smooth and engaging, the original compositions, like the jazzy, slightly Latin influenced “Lies” feel most effective in capturing the points made by Simpson and Cooper throughout the video. The original songs written by these two African American musicians illustrate the syncretic fluidity of genre and sound that are so integral to the image Cooper and Simpson present of the expressivity of African American music.

The program originally aired on WFYI, the PBS affiliate in Indianapolis, and was recently nominated for an Emmy Award (click here to view the trailer).

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry