After spending nearly three and a half years touring and performing throughout New Zealand and eastern Australia, in October of 1889, the Fisk Jubilee Singers sailed from Melbourne for South Asia. Since their formation in 1871, this group of African American vocalists had met with critical acclaim and cheers from large audiences in North America, Britain, continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, they departed from Melbourne aboard The Orizaba uncertain of how Indians and Europeans in the subcontinent would respond to their unique vocal performances of African American Spirituals.

Their first stop was Colombo in Ceylon, where music aficionados hoped to see the troupe in concert. The Singers thoroughly enjoyed sightseeing in the historic city. But they could not book a performance hall large enough to seat all the potential attendees. Unfortunately for the Singers, this setback was not the only ordeal they would encounter while en route to India. As they departed Ceylon in November 1889, an enormous cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal imperilled their ship. The Singers were almost certain that, even if The Orizaba circumvented the storm, they would miss their first concert in Calcutta. By a stroke of fortune, the ship pulled into Calcutta port unscathed, and the Singers arrived just in time to prepare for their inaugural performance in the subcontinent. The concert at Calcutta’s Opera House was cheered by a large audience and praised in the English and Bengali press. It would prove to be one of their many remarkably successful shows during their travels in colonial India and Burma from November 1889 to February 1890.

Although the Fisk Jubilee Singers spent a few short months in South Asia, their concerts in the region were as important to them as to their audiences. During their travels, they performed in prestigious concert spaces, lodged in exquisite hotels, and socialised in exclusive spaces. However, they had no desire to only interact with the colonial elite. Rather, the Singers also wished to share their musical talents with Indian persons throughout the subcontinent. Their perfomances, delivered in packed concert halls, received praise from diverse audiences, introduced Indian listeners to African American musical forms, and raised global awareness about Fisk University.

Cost of success

Despite the remarkableness of their 1884-1890 global tour, nearly all of the academic scholarship, documentaries and popular literature on the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers have detailed the formation, tours and travails of the original troupe from 1871 to 1878. During these famous tours, the Singers helped to financially support and expand Fisk University, an institution established in Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of the American Civil War, dedicated to the education of African American persons. Founded by Fisk’s first music director, George White, five years after the establishment of the university in 1866, the troupe toured parts of the United States, Canada, Britain and Continental Europe. After only a year of touring, the Fisk Jubilee Singers garnered a glowing reputation in the northern United States as a professionalised group of refined vocalists who presented audiences with an aesthetically unique and delightful form of music. However, their early success also generated competition.

By 1873, the Singers received so much praise and publicity in the press that other African American vocalists created imitation jubilee groups. In this case, imitation did not prove to be a form of flattery. Rather, these groups overwhelmed the market and led to a decline in ticket sales. In fact, some potential concert-goers did not buy tickets to the authentic Fisk Jubilee Singers’ concerts out of fear that they were merely one of the subpar, imitative troupes. This competition with impostor jubilee troupes and rival groups encouraged White and the Singers to leave North America for a series of tours of Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Holland and Germany from 1873 to 1878. Continental audiences flocked in large numbers to see the Singers, and their performances received the acclaim of European critics. Newspapers across Europe printed and reprinted articles evaluating, debating and highly praising the Singers.

As the Singers met with success abroad, they generated global interest in Fisk University and African American Spirituals. Their considerable earnings, much of which was remitted back to Fisk University, allowed the university to remain solvent and to expand its campus through the construction of ornate buildings, such as Jubilee Hall (1876) and Livingstone Missionary Hall (1882). Nevertheless, the university’s administration disbanded the group in 1878 out of fear that touring costs could soon outstrip profits. White and several members of the troupe, however, felt that the Fisk Jubilee Singers must continue, even if it meant touring without the official approval of the university.

Despite the disapproval of Fisk’s President, Erastus Cravath, White and basso Frederick Loudin recruited a new lineup of Fisk Jubilee Singers and set out on a tour of the northern United States and Canada in 1879. By 1880, Loudin unofficially took on the role of director of the Singers. He began each concert with an address to the audience on important issues, such as racial inequality in the United States, the history of African American Spirituals, and the mission of Fisk University. Over the next two years, the Singers’ musical performances – and Loudin’s orations – received praise from attendees, music critics and the future US President James A Garfield. After White resigned in 1882, Loudin became the official director of the Singers and began to plot and plan an ambitious tour around the world.

‘Rare musical treat’

In April 1884, the Singers began their six-year Global Tour that would eventually lead them to the Indian subcontinent. Contraltos Georgie Gibbons and Maggie Wilson; sopranos Maggie Carnes, Belle Gibbons, Mattie Lawrence, and Pattie Malone; tenors Robert Bradford Williams and John Lane; bassos Frederick Loudin and Orpheus McAdoo; pianist Leota Henson; and their agent, Mrs. Loudin, departed New York City for England. In the spring of 1886, after nearly two years of performing to crowds in Great Britain, the Singers began the next leg of their Global Tour by sailing to Australia.

Over the next three and a half years the troupe sang to enthusiastic audiences of all sizes throughout eastern Australia as well as in the North and South Islands of New Zealand. During their time in the Antipodes, the Singers socialised with the colonial elite and performed in ornate, urban concert halls. However, they also desired to hold concerts specifically for Aboriginal Australians, Māoris in New Zealand, and impoverished people throughout the region. Following several memorable and uplifting performances, the Singers resolved to socialise with, and perform for, Asian persons during the last portions of the Global Tour. In 1889, the troupe received encouragement to tour India from the Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, and from Henrietta Matson, a former Fisk University Professor now living as a missionary in Calcutta. Thus, by the summer of that year, they planned their visit to the subcontinent.

After arriving in Calcutta in November 1889, the troupe stayed at the exclusive Great Eastern Hotel and sang each night for two weeks at Calcutta’s Opera House. English and Bengali newspapers advertised these concerts and afterwards provided commentary. For instance, the India Daily News reported on December 2, 1889, that “among the audience were several of our best musicians, who listened with critical ears, and at the conclusion of the concert pronounced it a rare musical treat”. According to Frederick Loudin, “Our audiences were frequently very large and enthusiastic.” However, he was disappointed that most of the attendees were Europeans. During their first two weeks in Calcutta, Matson attended several of their performances at the Opera House. She claimed to have “heard nothing but the highest praise, except for one young Scotchman [who] was full of grouch”. For the Singers’ third and final week in Calcutta, Matson arranged for them to give concerts nightly at Bishop James Mills Thoburn’s Methodist Episcopal Church. She also invited members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to have tea with both missionaries and prominent Indian attendees. While the Singers had much success in Calcutta, in mid-December, they departed the “city of palaces” and travelled by train for bustling cities in Uttar Pradesh.

A concert poster for a performance by Fisk Jubilee Singers in Calcutta in November 1889. Credit: Archives Division, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

When they performed in Lucknow, Kanpur and Agra in December 1889, the Fisk Jubilee Singers received great cheers and applause from Indians and Europeans. Following their performances in Lucknow, The Lucknow Express reported on December 25, 1889, that several persons had assumed that “some of the ovations the company have already received from the English press were possibly overdrawn; but, since hearing them, these doubts have happily been dispelled”. After singing to equally enthusiastic crowds in Kanpur, the Singers moved on to Agra, where they again found success among Indian listeners. After their first performance in the historic city, one of the overseers of the Taj Mahal introduced himself to Loudin and invited the troupe to visit the famous monument. While inside the chamber containing the sarcophagi of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the troupe noted the wonderful acoustics and began to sing. The Delhi Gazette stated in December 1889 that Indians and Europeans at the Taj Mahal marvelled at the Singers’ vocal talents. According to one reporter, “Henceforth, the Taj and the Singers from the Far West will ever be connected in our memory.” Loudin equally recalled that this impromptu concert was “one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers”.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers then travelled by rail to Bombay, where they spent the first weeks of 1890 singing at the Framji Coswaji Institute. The troupe was delighted by Bombay residents’ response to their music. The Gujarati-language newspaper Rast Goftar reported that “we have never listened before from the lips of any musicians such sweet, beautiful, and admirable combination of voices, both the treble ones of the ladies and the more pretty ones of males”. According to Loudin, “In Bombay we sang with even greater success, as the Parsees came in large numbers to hear us, and our hall was nightly crowded to its utmost capacity, many persons sitting on the stage behind us.” After their final concert in Bombay in mid-January, the Fisk Jubilee Singers travelled down the western coast and across southern India to Madras.

After performing every night for two weeks at Victoria Hall, the troupe travelled across the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon. When the Singers arrived in February, Matson had relocated to Burma and arranged for them to give concerts each night for two weeks in Bishop James Mills Thoburn’s church in Rangoon. Much as in India, crowds cheered their performances and Burmese newspapers gave glowing accounts of how “the Methodist church was almost filled by a thoroughly appreciative audience”. While in Burma, the Singers learned that Fisk’s President Cravath had invited the Singers to attend the university’s 1890 commencement. So, in mid-February, the Fisk Jubilee Singers began their return tour to the United States. Over the next month and a half, the troupe briefly stopped to perform in Singapore, Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai and Japan on their way to the west coast of the United States.

For additional information about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their performances and experiences in India, please visit the author’s online exhibit, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Travels in the Antipodes and South Asia, 1886-1890.” In addition to celebrating the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 150th anniversary, this website presents to readers important archival material which help to further illuminate the history of the Singers’ global tour. Since letters, photographs, concert ephemera, and other documents relating to this period of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ history are scarce and are held in several archives around the globe, this exhibit allows readers to engage with an important assemblage of documents held in Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections (Nashville, Tennessee), and the Auburn Avenue Research Library (Atlanta, Georgia). This website will be of interest to readers interested in the history of the Singers, Fisk University, Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States, African American musicians, Spirituals, nineteenth-century American musical performances, and global representations of African Americans.