Does the name Marlena Smalls ring a bell? Probably not. At least not yet. If this large woman with an even larger smile and sparkling eyes has her way, however, the language, customs, and songs of the Gullah will become happily familiar to millions of people outside of the Sea Islands. For it is Mrs. Smalls' dream that through her and her performing troupe's efforts their Gullah community will no longer be an isolated, anachronistic hangover from the days of slavery in the United States, but a vibrant cultural addition to the 21st century global village.
The Sea Islands comprise a group of islands just off the southeast U.S. Atlantic coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Descendants of slaves settled here tilling the fertile land of these islands and the adjacent coastline. A rich overlay of a mixture of West African languages onto 17th and 18th century colonial English has resulted in Gullah, a creole language featuring its unique blend of African tongues and pidgin English. Thousands of distinct African words coming from various West African languages have been identified by linguists. A few words have been added into contemporary mainstream American English. These include goober (peanut), gumbo (okra), and voodoo (witchcraft). The word Gullah itself also hails from West Africa. Many of this ethnic group's given names are taken directly from languages passed down for hundreds of years, such as Abiona and Pitipa. American English is the language used when dealing with outsiders, but Gullah is the language of the marketplace and the home.
As with most African cultures, the Gullah have a rich tradition of music. The banjo, a stringed musical instrument, was an African invention brought over with the slaves to the New World. It has been popularized in both North America and Europe over the past 200 years. A great variety of drums, too, accompanied African music to the colonies in North and South America. Singing both solo and a cappella with rich harmonies was also part of the slave heritage. Despite their demanding and depressing lives, the slaves held their original languages and music as well as their masters' Christianity close to their hearts. Much of the music today involves church music, also referred to as spirituals or gospel music.
An evening with Marlena Smalls and her Hallelujah Singers is nothing short of inspirational. They are dressed at times in traditional African clothing, and at other times in the simple and conservative rural dress of Southern U.S. society. This unusual performance includes much singing, frequent samples of Gullah as used in the marketplace or between women gossiping. A great deal of emphatic body language, and even occasional tribal dance steps to thumping drums and enthusiastic shouting are also features of the performance. Mrs. Smalls introduces the background to individual songs or other performances to help the audience —— often peppered with overseas tourists —— have a clearer idea of how the Gullah communicate to each other. Even without the helpful introductions, however, music lovers will appreciate the peerless singing quality of the Hallelujah Singers as they render their traditional folk songs with obvious love and pride. Interspersed with Mrs. Smalls witty and classy narrative, the evening passes all too quickly.
It is refreshing to know that some ethnic groups are proudly clinging to their priceless legacies. Despite the tragedy of their origins in slavery, the Gullah have survived and revived to produce a viable, enviable folk culture even amidst the technological wonders of the 21st century. We can be thankful that in concert or on recorded media, Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers will touch all of us listeners with their heartfelt oral tradition through the magic of music.