TORONTO â€” Khari Wendell McClelland sought to trace the path travelled by his ancestors and other African-American slaves who fled to Canada in search of freedom.
But as he embarked on his cross-Canada journey researching the history of the Underground Railroad and his own great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy, McClelland unearthed a connection which deepened his interest and ties to their stories.
The Juno-nominated singer-songwriter was intrigued by the songs that helped guide and uplift the slaves in their arduous trek, which moved him to craft and adapt musical compositions.
With "Freedom Singer," McClelland blends documentary with live theatre. The production has launched at the Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto and will embark on a cross-Canada tour throughout February, which is Black History Month.
"I think I found my solace and .... strength in the music, and my ability to find songs that haven't been interpreted in a long time, that would have given so many people hope and a sense of possibility where there wasn't much possibility," he said.
Recordings of interviews and personal conversations formed the basis of the script, while 10 songs are performed in the piece. McClelland is accompanied onstage by Polaris Prize-longlisted soul singer Tanika Charles and Vancouver guitarist Noah Walker.
McClelland cited the Nova Scotia archives as a rich resource for historic recordings. The musician described recordings of an elder named William Riley, a storyteller and singer of traditional African-American spirituals and folk songs, as "beautiful and haunting."
Other tunes arrived in the form of sheet music, lyrics or poems with suggested melodies, which he also interpreted through his own experience. The production offers a contemporary twist by incorporating hip-hop, funk and soul.
"One of the things I realized early on was that I wasn't trying to be a folklorist in the sense of trying to accurately recreate the song as it was in the 1850s," said McClelland.
"I really wanted to make it real for me, and maybe real for other people who are from this time. I was really trying to build bridges through the music."
Titles of tracks he discovered conveyed the desire to demonstrate resistance in the face of oppression, such as "Song of the Fugitive," he noted.
"To free your own body made you a fugitive. To free yourself made you against the state, against the law, and people could hunt you down," he said. "All of this music, I think, really has relevance for today."
With the plight of displaced people at the forefront of global headlines, McClelland said the music's relevance continues to resonate.
"With so many people that are being persecuted and hurt by policies that restrict the flow of people ... and so many people that need a home and a place to get away from violence, the music really is a sustaining voice for me â€” and I hope it works that way for others, too."
McClelland co-created "Freedom Singer" with Andrew Kushnir, creative director of the documentary theatre non-profit Project Humanity, which has an interest in providing a platform for stories of the marginalized.
"There's this clear, clear message in what he's doing which is saying: 'We are allowed to pursue home,'" said Kushnir, who also directs the piece.
"We are allowed to find a better way of being together with one another, and in fact, we have to invest in one another."
During each tour stop, local choirs will be incorporated into the performances.
"I think sometimes as a performer, a musician, I'm very used to coming into a community for a day and leaving ... and I don't really get that sense of strong connection," said McClelland.
"It's amazing these songs get to live on in these choirs, but also that I have the opportunity to connect musically, creatively with masses of people across the country. Really, it makes my heart sing."
"Freedom Singer" runs at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto through Feb. 11. It will be presented by the Regina Folk Fest on Feb. 14, the Calgary Folk Fest on Feb. 17-19, followed by stops in Winnipeg on Feb. 22, Halifax on Feb. 24, Montreal on Feb. 26, and Ottawa on Feb. 28.
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press