The Fisk Jubilee Singers In South Asia, 1889-1890
In October, 1889, a reporter for Melbourne’s Evening Standard interviewed Frederick Loudin about the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ time in Australia and New Zealand. Loudin admitted to the journalist that “there is no place in the world where I would rather live than Australia.” However, after receiving encouragement to tour South Asia from the Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, and the former Fisk English Professor, Henrietta Matson, the Fisk Jubilee Singers resolved to perform in the subcontinent and other reaches of Asia during their return to the United States. This “homeward bound” tour was to begin in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before reaching Calcutta. After several months performing in South Asia, the Singers planned to stop briefly in China and Japan while en route to North America. Although the FJS were only in India and Burma for three months, their concerts in this region of the world garnered the attention and praise of European and Asian audiences alike. Much like their time in Australia and New Zealand, the Singers met with success as they performed to diverse audiences, introduced listeners to African American musical forms, and raised global awareness of Fisk University. During their short tour in the subcontinent, Loudin and the Singers maintained close ties to Henrietta Matson and others engaged in Christian missionary endeavors. The FJS believed that their performances similarly served to benefit European and South Asian listeners spiritually. Since the FJS’s travels and concerts in Asia have received little scholarly or popular attention, this page reveals how the troupe navigated this British imperial milieu during their multifarious performances and social engagements with both colonizer and colonized.
Following the Singers’ departure from Melbourne in late October, 1889, The Ceylon Observer reported that many persons in Colombo wished to attend the Singers’ performances after seeing “a lot of glowing accounts in the Australian papers.” Despite this popular demand in Colombo, the FJS’s managers could not find an adequate performance hall. In the view of disappointed potential attendees, “it is a disgrace to a city as important as Colombo, that it has no place where a decent entertainment could be given.” When the Singers arrived in early November, they, nevertheless, made the most of their three days in Ceylon by staying at the exquisite Galle Face Hotel, by sightseeing in the countryside, and by visiting historical sites in the city of Kandy “about forty miles from Colombo.” According to Loudin, when the Singers “left for Calcutta,” they found their short time on the island quite enriching. In the days leading up to their arrival in the subcontinent, Calcutta newspapers generated interest in the FJS by printing advertisements for their forthcoming concerts and by detailing the importance of the troupe and their Spirituals. For instance, a short notice in The Indian Witness assured readers that the troupe’s “singing is not of the cheap minstrel sort; but high-toned, both in matter and in execution.” However, as the Singers traveled through the Bay of Bengal aboard The Orizaba, they feared that they would not reach Calcutta in time for their opening night on November 25th. Although an enormous cyclonic storm delayed the voyage by several days, the ship pulled into port in Calcutta not long before their first concert. The Singers, nevertheless, delivered an excellent performance lauded by all in attendance.
Throughout their three weeks in Calcutta, the Singers stayed at the exclusive Great Eastern Hotel and performed in prestigious venues. For the first two weeks, the troupe sang at Calcutta’s Opera House. Local newspapers continued to advertise and present commentary on their shows. Although Calcutta’s theater and concert audiences had a reputation for being harshly dismissive of thespians and musicians, the FJS did not receive the “severest…ordeals of public criticism.” Rather, the India Daily News reported 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 Loudin, “our audiences were frequently very large and enthusiastic.” However, these crowds tended to be mostly “European and Eurasians, as the natives were but little attracted by us.” Henrietta Matson attended several of their shows, and noted that at the Opera House she “heard nothing but the highest praise, except for one young Scotchman [who] was full of grouch.” Similarly, some journalists did not shower praise upon the Singers. One writer for the India Planters’ Gazette, for instance, claimed that “no one seemed to be able to make up their minds as to the merits” of the FJS’s songs.
During their last week in Calcutta, the Singers performed nightly at Bishop Thoburn’s Methodist Episcopal Church and socialized with notable missionaries and congregants. For these final performances in Calcutta, the FJS refined their repertoire to consist of only pieces which met with the expectations of the primarily Christian audience. According to a columnist for The Englishman, “both the body of the building and in the gallery the people sat entranced, listening eagerly to the end of a programme of sixteen pieces…the Singers have not done better in Calcutta than they did last night.” These performances proved so popular among the attendees that Matson and the Thoburns invited the Singers to attend “church teas” with prominent American and British missionaries and “Bengali khans.” During one tea, “Patti [Malone] and Maggie [Carnes] did enjoy how we told so many stories about Fisk.” However, “Mr. Loudin did not accept for fear that he would be asked to sing, and I [Matson] would not have asked the girls to sing. But Mrs. Thoburn did, and they said ‘certainly’…They then sang ‘Rise and Shine,’ ‘A Time to Return Home,’” and others pieces. After one of their final performances at Bishop Thoburn’s church, the Statesman reported that the Jubilee Singers gave an excellent concert “before a large and appreciative audience comprising the elite of Calcutta society.” However, the FJS were disappointed that there was “so poor an attendance on the occasion of their farewell performance.” Although they generally met with success in Calcutta, in mid-December the Singers departed the “city of palaces” and traveled westward by train across northern India.
For the next two weeks, the FJS performed in the cities of Lucknow, Kanpur, and Agra to audiences of European and Indian persons. Although the Singers were only in Lucknow briefly, their concerts at the Lall Bagh Church received commentary in local papers. According to The Lucknow Express, 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.” During their performances in these cities in Uttar Pradesh, the Singers noted how the audiences had many South-Asian listeners and admirers. Following their first concert in Agra, one of the overseers of the Taj Mahal approached Loudin and invited the troupe to visit the well-known tomb and Mosque. When beside the sarcophaguses of the famed Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Singers performed several songs. Loudin later recounted in his travelogue how the Singers “gather[ed] around the sarcophagi, and soon the great lofty dome echoes the first Christian song it has ever caught up, and that song the cry of a race akin to those whose dust sleeps in the crypt beneath. As the tones of that beautiful slave song, ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ which we had sung before emperors, presidents, kings and queens, awoke the stillness of that most wonderful of temples.” For Loudin, this performance was “one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The Delhi Gazette similarly claimed that this impromptu concert was a “treat afforded to the few who were privileged to attend…Henceforth, the Taj and the Singers from the Far West will ever be connected in our memory.” Within days of this notable performance, the Singers departed Agra by rail bound for Bombay on India’s west coast.
The FJS then spent the first week of January, 1890 performing at the Framji Coswaji Institute in Bombay. Local newspapers advertised their performances and detailed how “everyone has heard of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how they went out into the world to get sufficient money to pay off the debt of Fisk University and ensure its permanence.” Much like in Lucknow, Kanpur, and Agra, South Asian attendees in Bombay showed appreciation for their talents. 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.” The Singers’ performances attracted sizeable audiences throughout their time in Bombay. One journalist similarly noted following one of their final concerts that “the hall was literally packed, even to the spiral staircase, which offered seats for a few who could not reach the gallery.” Moreover, the Gujarati-language newspaper, Rast Goftar, extolled the virtues of the FJS and their songs to a primarily South Asian readership. According to one reporter, “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.” Although this writer did not make any mention of the Christian subject matter of the troupe’s songs, the article assured readers that “the time and money spent…on a visit to them will not be lost.” After the Singers’ final performance in this city, The Bombay Gazette revealed that many “regret that their stay is so short in Bombay, but express a hope such an opportunity may again be given us of hearing the talented Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have charmed the ears and hearts of many during the past week.” On January 6th, the singers departed Bombay by train down the west coast and through the southern reaches of the subcontinent en route to Madras.
From the 11th to the 14th of January, the Singers performed at Victoria Hall or at Memorial Hall in Madras. Although Loudin would later claim that “Madras was also one of our most successful points in India,” newspapers presented a differing narrative of their “non-appearance at Victoria Public Hall.” One attendee later reported that “the first concert given by this troupe . . . attracted but a poor audience. Perhaps this was in part due to the unfortunate disappointment which many incurred the previous day. Fresh to India and its ways, the Company had relied on the statement of a railway official in Bombay” and missed their train. Their late arrival in Madras and consequent cancellation their first performance lessened audience size each subsequent night. Nevertheless, the FJS’s performances received positive reviews in the Madras Times, which noted crowds filled with the “same faces night after night.” According to Henrietta Matson, the Singers “ought to have stayed longer and were begged to stay longer in Madras, where they did well, but their arrangements were made to move – on homeward to Singapore – from there to Hong Kong. Thus, in mid-January, the Singers “sailed from Madras along the east coast of India, calling at the various ports until Coconada was reached; then, crossing the Bay of Bengal, [their] next stop was at Rangoon in Lower Burma.”
As the FJS sailed across the Bay of Bengal to Rangoon, Henrietta Matson – who had just relocated to Burma – arranged for the Singers to perform to the public at a local Methodist church and to congregations of Buddhist Karen persons. Much like in India, local newspapers recorded after each show that “the Methodist church was almost filled by a thoroughly appreciative audience.” However, their collaborations with missionaries in Rangoon proved particularly memorable for the Singers. As Loudin later recalled, the FJS “were asked to sing to their [missionary] schools, and one beautiful morning we drove out to where they were located and found gathered in the large hall nearly half of their students, packed like sardines in a box.” After greeting the “gentlemanly and lady-like” Burmese persons in attendance, the troupe “sang a number of pieces for them, which they seemed most thoroughly to enjoy, many of them being moved to tears. They, in turn, sang for us a number of the Moody and Sankey [Buddhist] hymns, which they did very well, indeed.” Matson also accompanied FJS as they visited notable landmarks in Burma, such as the Shwedagon Pagoda. According to Matson, “the Great ‘Shray Dragon Pagoda’ is the largest and most beautiful one in the world….It is covered in gold leaf – which is replaced every few years from the supply brought from all of Burma – and adorned with jewels costing thousands of pounds sterling.” Matson and the Singers also noted that “across from the Pagoda is a most beautiful garden or park. These oriental gardens are lovely beyond description. The drive before reaching the Ghats is one long scene of magnificent trees, and inside are plants and flowers, little summer houses and romantic looking bridges across a long structure that divides the gardens.” When Matson and the FJS “sat on some grass-grown steps heading down to the bank,” they observed “groups of people…sitting or lying on the grass and talking in languages unknown to us.” 
Since President Cravath invited the Singers to attend Fisk’s 1890 commencement, the troupe departed from Rangoon in mid-February. The FJS spent the next month and a half traveling and performing in Singapore, Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai, and Japan. Upon arrival in Singapore, the Singers gave three concerts “to a large audience.” Despite this initial success, the FJS “were unfortunate [in Hong Kong] as to the time of our concert, for it was race-week and the people…give up their entire time, night and day, to the festivities of this great annual event.” Moreover, when the Singers arrived in Shanghai in mid-March, they found that most of the “leading Europeans” and prominent Chinese persons had gone to Hong Kong for the races. Thus, attendance at their concert was sparce.  However, the Singers’ performances in Japan were not disappointing. As the Kobe Herald revealed, “[just] as the weather was storming outside, so did the audience inside the theatre storm the house with rapturous applause.” After this brief visit to Japan, the troupe departed on the Rio De Janeiro bound for San Francisco. Soon after returning to the United States, Loudin lamented that it was obvious to each of the Singers that they were “no longer free from that prejudice which confronts a Negro at every turn in life, and which we had not met with in any other quarter of the globe.”