By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer

The Colour of Music at the Memorial Auditorium in fall 2021. The festival returns to Sacramento Nov. 15-18, playing at the Memorial Auditorium, the Guild Theater, City Hall Galleria in West Sacramento, and two church venues which will feature the pipe organ. Courtesy Photo

Classical music is often thought to be “White folks” music, but Lee Pringle insists that’s a myth.

“A lot of the instruments thought of as classical instruments, the precursors were all on the continent of Africa,” Pringle said. “We are the only culture who has influenced all genres of music, we’ve just not had access to let our talents be seen.”

Pringle is the artistic director of the Colour of Music Black Classical Musicians Festival. He founded it in 2013 to show the impact and historical significance of Black classical composers and performers on American and world culture. After first premiering in Charleston, South Carolina, it has since debuted in cities nationwide, including Houston, Washington D.C., and Atlanta.

The festival has overcome racial and financial barriers, going on to become the world’s largest Black classical music festival. Blacks make up less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras and only 4.3% of conductors are Black, according to a 2014 study. Composers also are predominantly White.

The festival made its west coast debut in Sacramento last fall. And Black Sacramentans showed up and showed out, selling out all three nights.

The festival returns to Sacramento Nov. 15-18, and Pringle promises that it will be “even bigger.”

The show will hit major Sacramento venues, including Memorial Auditorium, the Guild Theater, and the City Hall Galleria in West Sacramento. But it will also play at two churches, the City Church of Sacramento and the All Saints Episcopal Church. The venues were chosen to capture the robust sound of the pipe organ, another new addition.

Lee Pringle is the artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival which he founded to show the global impact and historical significance of Black classical composers and performers. “When you’re sure of our many contributions as Black people, you are sure of yourself. I think this is truly the last glass ceiling,” he said. Courtesy Photo

“We have some wonderful things that go back to our roots — including the pipe organ,” Pringle said. “After we were colonized and brought here the pipe organ was the first classical instrument that most of our community was exposed to.”

Black composers also will be featured. Three new works by Edmund Thornton Jenkins will be premiered. The Morehouse graduate rose to fame during the Harlem Renaissance from 1918 to 1937. He influenced the Charleston sound lifted by George Gershwin, an acclaimed White composer who wrote the historic opera “Porgy and Bess.”

Tuffus Zimbabwe, Jenkins’ great nephew, will speak at the festival’s opening matinee. Zimbabwe will play compositions from Jenkins to show similarities with music later composed by Gershwin.

“My goal is to educate people that Black composers often predate many of the people they’re often compared to,” Pringle said.

While Black musicians helped create classical music, they are vastly underrepresented in the genre. Financial barriers limit Blacks’ access to classical music, Pringle said. Concert tickets come at a high price and studying the art requires costly lessons and advanced degrees. Arts education in schools has been an entry point for Black youth, but such programs have been cut in recent years.

“If you’re able to give your 5-year-old technical lessons by a professional musician in a private studio, you’re always going to be yards ahead of the minority child who doesn’t get an instrument in their hands until middle school,” Pringle said.

Many Black classical musicians leave college with debt and aren’t often paid “what they are worth.” 

“They have to do what I call the ‘gig economy,’” Pringle said. “Somebody may ask them to come and do a set at some bar, having no clue that they have a classical education.”

A point of pride for Pringle is extending contracts to the festival’s 76 musicians, two conductors and opera singer. The contract offers competitive pay and all-expense-paid travel, including hotel costs and transportation.

The festival is a $500,000 operation that relies on sponsorships from local corporations and public agencies in each city. In Sacramento, the city anchored the financial need by contributing $150,000.

The festival uses the international spelling of “colour” because the musicians come from around the world. “We want to embrace people who own their African ancestry from around the globe,” Pringle said. Courtesy Photo

Visit Sacramento, a marketing organization, offered an in-kind promotional campaign on top of a $50,000 grant. They also secured an additional $25,000 from the Sacramento Tourism Marketing District.

“I just see this as something that could be a signature event for our region,” said Sonya Bradley, Visit Sacramento’s chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “But right now we’re still at the ground level.”

Pringle praised the city’s and Visit Sacramento’s commitment to diversity, but encouraged other organizations to also get involved.

“It’s not fair to all the other communities of color for Visit Sacramento to do that kind of heavy lifting,” Pringle said. “I hope that we create a platform to bring other cultures to the forefront, to show what makes California — and Sacramento — a beacon for others to emulate.”

When asked why corporations should contribute their dollars, Pringle said: “When a corporation contributes to the cultural fiber of a city, everybody benefits.”

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the festival’s Sacramento debut. By the time it opened in fall 2021, nearly two years had passed since talks began in January 2020.

“When everything shut down in March of 2020, that should shake everybody to not take entertainers for granted,” Pringle said. “The arts make life purposeful. It gives you the ability to step away from the stresses of the office. You can leave it all behind you.” 

Lee Pringle speaks at the City University of New York Graduate Center on June 15. The festival has also traveled to cities of Black historical significance such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Houston. Courtesy Photo

Former City Councilmember Larry Carr initially led local efforts to bring the festival to Sacramento. He said it was important to unite Sacramento’s diverse community that was “still operating in their silos.”

“The festival brings diverse communities together and lets people know — regardless of our skin color — we’re all one,” Carr said. “The music proves it. Their music plays the same piano keys as our music.”

Increasing arts and culture in Sacramento benefits youth, Carr added. He explained children who study an instrument do better in math and sciences. His statements are supported by the Arts Education Partnership which found that arts education boosts reading comprehension, advances math achievement, and develops critical thinking.

Pringle said the education system needs to prioritize arts education.

“When districts are figuring out how they’re going to make ends meet, the first thing to get chopped is the arts,” Pringle said. “When in fact, the percentage of people who do something with music out of high school exponentially surpasses [those] who have a career in sports.”

In just a few days, Black classical artists will take center stage in an industry where they often wait in the wings. Onstage, they will awe Sacramentans with their musical prowess. But behind the music, they are torchbearers taking their rightful place in history. 

“When you’re sure of our many contributions as Black people, you are sure of yourself,” Pringle said. “I think this is truly the last glass ceiling.”

For more information on the Colour of Music Festival or to buy tickets, visit colourofmusic.org/events-sacramento.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.