The Praise House embodies the heights of hope, the depths of anguish, and the endless frustrations of life as a slave. A meeting place where slaves were allowed to congregate for religious purposes, the Praise House became an expression of all they weren't allowed to say while they toiled. Typically, it was a small, wooden building where they would gather to worship. Forbidden to have drums, they used sticks and their hands to create a percussive rhythm that gave expression to their feelings. They sang, clapped, shouted, and pretty much raised a ruckus to the heavens, forming "ring shouts" and using gourd shakers to add to the cacophony.
Singer Ann Caldwell doesn't like to refer to her ancestors as "slaves." Instead, she calls them "our ancestors who were brought to America for slave labor."
Far from being ashamed of the African-American experience, Caldwell proudly re-creates the Praise House for audiences at Piccolo each year, using it to provide a visceral history lesson that illuminates the roots of modern music — from jazz, rock, and ragtime to the blues.
"It's more like an experience than a show," says Caldwell. "We give everyone a chance to hear what the Gullah language sounds like." And for the uninitiated, the Gullah language sounds like a song in and of itself. Lyrical and rhythmic, Gullah is a pidgin of the English and African languages that has been spoken by the sea island community for generations.
Gullah, along with work songs, enabled slaves to communicate without the overseer knowing any better. Similarly, the Praise House enabled them to sustain and encourage each other, despite harsh living conditions. Today, Praise House performances are an ecstatic, hopeful experience, for the performers are living in a very different world than their ancestors. Their singing, shouting, stomping, and clapping is an homage to a painful experience that is indeed history.
PRAISE HOUSE • Piccolo Spoleto's Traditional Music Of The Old South • $20 • May 30, June 2, 6, 9, at 7 p.m.; June 2, 9 at 8:30 p.m. • Buxton's East Bay Theater, 184 East Bay St.• 554-6060