The Power of the Voice – Black Voices

Black Voices, the internationally respected British A Capella quintet, will be touring Australia in October and November. Jan Chandler recently had the pleasure of speaking with Carol Pemberton MBE, their founder and musical director.

Carol PembertonIn some ways theirs is a familiar story. The group started as backing singers for pop bands. They would be delighted if they were given a few lines of lyrics to sing, rather than just oos and ahs in support of the main singer. In rehearsal, they would often think that their three or four part harmonies sounded pretty good. But, too often, when the track was finished they found themselves wondering “where are our voices”; the man at the mixing desk had had his way and the guitar or drums had taken over. Tired of continually being in the shadow of others, they formed Black Voices with the aim of taking their particular harmonies and good messages to a wider audience.  

Some twenty-five years later Black Voices has toured the world, sharing the stage with such greats as Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Take 6 and Wynton Marsalis. The influences on their music are as varied as those they have performed with and include jazz, African, gospel and pop, they have a wonderful version of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water on YouTube.  

Black Voices first came to Australia in 1999 at the invitation of the then Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival, Sue Nattrass, and played to sell-out crowds. They returned here in 2001 and 2007 and this year bring their new show to Australian audiences. Carol Pemberton and Sandra Francis, original members of Black Voices, will be joined by Evon Johnson-Elliot (who joined the group in 2001), 17 year old Shereece Storrod and Celia Wickham-Anderson, a singer and musician who has led her own group.  

As well as a singer, Carol is an accomplished musician who plays cello, piano, saxophone and a variety of wind instruments. Given her varied musical talents I had to ask Carol what, for her, is so special about the unaccompanied voice. It's “the first instrument, and in terms of music that moves me. I always listen to great vocals … music with great singing voices is the most emotive because it is humanly produced [and] comes from within … For me there is no more moving music than the human voice”.

Black Voices will be bringing a new program to Australia and I was interested to find out how they go about selecting the songs for tours like this. Whilst they like to have some idea of what is happening in the country they will be visiting, Carol believes that their music is a universal language and will appeal to everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest. “There are elements that speak to different people and I think that's because of the mix of material that we put in a concert; we cover classical, jazz, pop, blues, gospel, reggae, folk music.

One of the highlights of their last Australian tour was meeting Archie Roach. As a way of showing their love and respect for his work they hope to include one of his songs in the program.

What, I wonder, is the role of oral traditions in today's busy and noisy world. “Given where we're heading, live music … has become so much more important because it's so pure, so natural … everything seems to be synthetic and life's moving at such a fast pace”.  Clare was impressed by what an audience member said to them after a recent concert, 'it's so nice to hear something natural, pure, no frills, just raw talent on stage demonstrating the power and the beauty of music through the human voice'. “That's what we bring”.

“It's a powerful medium, the oral tradition, and it brings people back to reality, a natural place where they can enjoy a range of music.”

What's really special for the quintet is when audiences are “not afraid to show they are enjoying the music” and Clare describes Australian audiences as “some of the most receptive in the world”.

Clare is excited that Black Voices is not only returning to Australia, but that they will be bringing their musical message to other cities besides Melbourne. Our music is the “simple music of love … normally when you play music … you love something about what you're listening to, or it speaks to something that really is a help in your life. I hope we cheer people up.”

The Black Voices tour commences with a performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday 30 October.


Thursday 30 October 2014 7.30pm
Tickets available from: or 03 9699 3333

Saturday 1 November 2014 7.30pm or 132 849
Sunday 2 November 2014 3pm or 02 8256 2222

Tuesday 4 November 2014 7.30pm or 02 4723 7600

Wednesday 5 November 2014 7.30pm or 02 6275 2700

Friday 7 November 2014 7.30pm or 131 246

Saturday 8 November 2014 7.30pm or 132 849

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