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The Star / Memory of Martin Luther King Jr. [ Jan 20 2000 ]

Memory of king lives on - Singing to civil rights movement

By Lewis Ibrahim
Special to the star

"I have a dream." With these words the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King captured the hearts and minds of all African-American around the United States.

Even after his assassination on April 4 1968 in Memphis, King is still regarded as the father of the modern civil rights movement in North America and the symbol of freedom, peace and non-violent civil disobedience around the world.

In his memory, the American Center in Amman hosted, 17 January, a special concert by the American guitarist Lee-Alison Sibley.

The concert was held on the 71st anniversary of the civil rights leader who was born on 15 January 1929. The 90-minute concert was attended by the US Ambassador in Amman, William Burns, representatives of the diplomatic corps and a large Jordanian audience.

Sibley, who is also an accomplished soprano, began the concert with six folk songs from the '60s that focused on the civil rights movement in the US. Sibley's operatic voice dominated the auditorium. "I was born with a very loud voice" Sibley told The Star. She said that she had been singing since she was seven years old. She obtained a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music as well as a master of Education from the George Mason University. "When I went to university, it was the job of my teachers to take the voice and tame it much like you tame a wild animal" Sibley explained.

The artist said that her choice of songs in the concert came from her personal history. Sibley added that she loves talking about history. "I learned the songs as a child from my mother who spent hours singing with me," she said. Asked how she preserved her operatic voice all these years, Sibley said she took good care of her health employing strong breathing techniques. The artist used to be a 'voice merger', teaching her students voice techniques for 25 years. "It is a matter of technique. When I train my students I keep telling them one thing: do not smoke. I have never smoked, and will never allow any of my students to smoke," stressed Sibley who is currently the head of the Performing Arts Center at the American Baccalaureate School.

In the first part of the performance, Sibley played the guitar while singing. Her first song, titled "Follow the Drinking Gourd," related the rush of American Blacks to reach the northern American states in pursuit of freedom from slavery in southern states. Her second song " All My Trials" was first of four melodies that Sibley performed for audience. The song was a testimony to the harsh lives, which Afro-Americans had to endure. "The song written more than 100 years ago and speaks of the aspirations of Black Americans to have a better life after death," the soprano said. Sibley's next song for the audience was "Kumbaya". It was originally sung in the West Indies and titled "Come by me". The artist said that because of the influx of African Americans to the US early in the 20th century, the song was then changed to the present title.

The part also included a lullaby in memory of King's teammate Medgar Evans, who was assassinated on 12 June 1963. "I believe very strongly in the equality of all mankind whoever they are," said Sibley who is an accomplished performer on both the six and 12-string guitars." I felt that one of the worst, if not the worst, period in American history was the period of African American slavery." Sibley said that because of their enslavement, African Americans didn't have any legal rights until 1964 when the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discriminations in public places. She chose to sing on King's anniversary to remind Americans of his responsibility in enabling all Afican-Americans to obtain their legal rights." I want to keep his memory alive and honor him in the best way possible, which for me is sacred." In her second part, Sibley was accompanied by Jordanian pianist Tariq Younis in performing eight spiritual songs. "I tried to use a more informal voice for the folk songs because when you sing spirituals you can use a more trained and more operatic voice."

Songs in the second part of the concert embodied the obstacles and fierce resistance that King was facing in his civil rights movement. In her last song "He's Got the Whole World in his Hand," Sibley praised the fruits of King's achievements in consolidating popular support for his goals. The artist said that she hopes her children will teach these songs to their kids." I believe that the memory of King must be kept alive," she concluded.