Dr. Paul T. Kwami, the director of The Fisk Jubilee Singers died Saturday (Sept. 10) at age 70.
Kwami took the 151-year-old Nashville musical institution into the modern era. During his 28-year tenure as the group’s leader, The Fisk Jubilee Singers won its first Grammy Award, undertook its first African tour, was honored with a National Medal of Arts and entered the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, among other accomplishments.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were Nashville’s first stars. Founded in 1871, the group popularized slave spirituals. They were the first act to circumnavigate the globe on tour and performed before all the crowned heads of Europe. The group has been recording since 1909.
Paul Theophilus Kwami was born and raised in the West African nation of Ghana. He became a pianist and music teacher before emigrating to the U.S. in 1982 to pursue graduate studies at Fisk University.
While a student in Nashville, he was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1983-85. He earned his master’s degree at Western Michigan University, then returned to Fisk to become the Jubilee Singers director in 1994.
In 1999, the singers portrayed their 19th-century musical ancestors for reenactment segments of a PBS documentary in the American Experience series. They were signed to Curb Records and released the CD In Bright Mansions in 2003. One of the CD’s tracks, “Poor Man Lazarus” won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association.
The following year, Kwami began updating the ensemble’s repertoire and outreach. The group was soon collaborating on stages and in the studio with pop, folk, gospel and country stars, from Neil Young to Shania Twain. Among the group’s collaborators since have been Hank Williams Jr., Danny Glover, Faith Hill, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, Keb’ Mo’, The Fairfield Four, Lee Ann Womack, CeCe Winans and Natalie Cole.
In 2000, the Jubilees became the subjects of the book Dark Midnight When I Rise. This evolved into an acclaimed PBS documentary film, Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory. A second book about the group was 2010’s Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus.
In 2006, The Fisk Jubilee Singers were honored with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame. The group was celebrated at the Recording Academy Honors ceremony in Nashville, along with Loretta Lynn and others in 2007. This is also when the singers were honored with a Tennessee Governors Award in the Arts. Later that year, the choir toured Kwami’s homeland, Ghana.
The ensemble was chosen to receive a National Medal of Arts in 2008. Paul Kwami earned a doctorate of music degree from Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music in 2009.
Under Kwami’s directorship, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed at venues including the Apollo Theatre, Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institute, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, White House and several Spanish and Italian halls.
Kwami also stepped up the group’s recording activities. Its new-millennium collections have included Sacred Journey (2007), The Fisk Jubilee Singers (2011), Roll Jordan Roll (2015) and I Want to Be Ready (2021).
Its 2021 recording Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album won a Grammy Award in the Best Roots Gospel Album category. Also in that year, The Fisk Jubilee Singers were honored by the Americana Music Association with the AMA’s Legacy of Americana award.
The Grammy-winning album was produced by Shannon Sanders. He reported that the current members of The Fisk Jubilee Singers gathered last week at the hospital where Kwami was ill. They sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” outside his room.
Paul Kwami served as a board member for the W.O. Smith Community Music School, the Nashville Advisory Council, the Gospel Music Association Foundation and the Schermerhorn Symphony Committee.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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