Dr. Paul T. Kwami, revered music director of the world-renowned, Grammy-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers for 28 years, died in a Nashville hospital early Saturday morning, his family said in a statement to The Tennessean Saturday night. Kwami was 70 years old.
“It is with deep and immeasurable sadness that we share the news of the passing of our beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle and friend, Dr. Paul Theophilus Kwami. His passing leaves a gaping hole in our souls as well only in our community and in our world,” the statement read.
“Dr. Kwami rose to fame on Saturday, September 10 in the wee hours of the morning surrounded by his family in Nashville, Tennessee.” (The family statement appears in full at the bottom of this story.)
During his tenure, Kwami led the Fisk Jubilee Singers – Nashville’s oldest musical institution – into a celebrated modern era. Founded in 1871, the touring group was the first to introduce “Negro spirituals” to an international audience. More than a century later, Kwami has taken them to unparalleled heights.
In 2021, they won their first Grammy Award for the album “Celebrating Fisk”, recorded live on stage at the Ryman Auditorium. They returned to the stage the same year to celebrate their 150th anniversary.
“Dr. Kwami was a real bridge for the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the past to the future,” said Nashville music producer Shannon Sanders, a frequent collaborator with the troupe and a man Kwami called “my brother” from the show. Ryman scene earlier this year. .
“Dr. Kwami was the torchbearer,” Sanders said. “He definitely held on so the Fisk Jubilee Singers could see their way.”
Kwami watched the Fisk Jubilee Singers win a National Medal of Arts and enter the Grammys and Gospel Music Halls of Fame. In recent years, he has led the group on stage at Carnegie Hall, as well as on the airwaves of PBS. But each semester, as new Fisk students joined their ranks, accomplishments like these were not at the forefront of Kwami’s mind.
“First, I teach them about the sacrifices the early Fisk Jubilee Singers made,” he told The Tennessean in 2020.
“Their journey happened at a time when slavery had just ended, at a time when a lot of people didn’t expect much from African Americans, even though they were very intelligent… if the (group origin), young students, could make this kind of sacrifice, we should follow and do the same.
The current Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have known Kwami’s illness for weeks, sang a hymn in a hallway outside his downtown Nashville hospital room last month, Sanders said.
This performance of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” moved a few family members, singers and hospital staff to tears.
“It was beautiful,” Sanders said. “The children sang it with such reverence.”
A music teacher, just like his father
In a in-depth interview with The Tennessean Last year, Kwami said his musical memories go back to when he was a 4-year-old boy growing up in a small mountain town in Ghana in West Africa.
His father, a farmer and music teacher, lifted the boy on his lap before playing the piano at their home. Young Kwami hummed along to the music and watched in delight as his father’s fingers flew across the keyboard.
As a child, Kwami often followed when his father conducted rehearsals for church and school choirs. When the boy came home, he would often stand in front of his bedroom mirror mimicking his father’s hand movements – the same movements Kwami used as an adult when he became a bandleader.
Kwami grew up one of seven children, and all of them worked on the farm, garden, and coffee plantation the family owned.
Kwami’s father insisted on the same work ethic for piano lessons – Kwami couldn’t play on Sunday afternoons with the other boys until he finished practicing.
Still, the boys played a lot of football and sometimes climbed to the top of the city’s tallest mountain, where German missionaries had erected a giant cross.
“We would sit there and watch the rest of the world from there,” Kwami said quietly.
Like most kids in his town, Kwami went to boarding school for high school. There, Kwami realizes his plan to become a music teacher, just like his father.
After graduating, Kwami completed two years of teachers’ school before enrolling in the new four-year National Academy of Music in Ghana, where he stayed after graduation to teach.
Kwami started playing the organ in a church in town. He married in 1982, and soon after, Kwami met a missionary from his hometown who changed his life.
The missionary, a friend of his father, recommended Kwami go to Fisk University in Nashville as an undergraduate to pursue his music studies. Kwami was planning to study in the United States – he fell in love with America when he toured the country a few years earlier with an African choir.
“I really loved drinking fresh milk!” he said.
But, Kwami said, “I’ve never been to Nashville, never heard of Fisk, never heard of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
However, he applied because he trusted the missionary, because he was a friend of his father.
“A man of family and faith”
Kwami was accepted and got a missionary church scholarship to go. He left behind his parents, his wife and a job he loved for a school he didn’t know.
He did it with the support and pride of his father. But the night Kwami flew out from Ghana, his father collapsed with emotion, feeling he would never see his eldest son again. It turned out to be true.
At Fisk, Kwami immediately connected with college organist, McCoy Ransom, who became Kwami’s mentor.
A classmate encouraged Kwami to try out for the Jubilee Singers, but Kwami was not going to Fisk to sing; he was going to be a better teacher and a better musician.
The classmate continued to encourage Kwami to apply, and when he found out that Jubilee Singers’ musical director was Ransom, Kwami showed up for the auditions.
After earning a spot in the ensemble, Kwami quickly learned about the history of the Jubilee Singers, their importance to college, their importance to the music world.
After the Jubilee Singers’ first photo shoot, Kwami took a photo and sent it to his father.
Kwami went on to earn a master’s degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where his wife joined him. Kwami’s father died right after graduating.
Almost a decade after graduating from Fisk, Kwami returned to campus as Music Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1994. Kwami retained this title until his death.
“There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Dr. Kwami, a talented and humble treasure with drive and a vision of excellence for the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” said Butch Spyridon, CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. .
“I don’t think Fisk or Nashville really understand this loss.”
“Dr. Kwami was a man of family and faith,” said MTSU professor Crystal A. deGregory, a Fisk graduate and longtime friend of Kwami.
“In all the ways that matter, we are his family too – and his devotion to the Jubilee Singers, our school, and a generation or more of Fisk students was how he lived his faith.”
Funeral arrangements will be announced “in the coming days,” the family statement read.
Before closing a Grammy celebration concert last year, Dr. Kwami was inspired by a Bible verse written above the gates of the Fisk Memorial Chapel, where the band performs.
“I always believed that Fisk was a shining star and he will continue to shine brighter and brighter,” Dr Kwami said. “So I quote Isaiah chapter 60, verse one, which says, ‘Arise, be enlightened, for your light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. Amen.”
Statement from the Family of Dr. Paul T. Kwami on the Occasion of His Passing
“It is with deep and immeasurable sadness that we share the news of the passing of our beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle and friend, Dr. Paul Theophilus Kwami. His passing leaves a gaping hole in our souls as well only in our community and in our world.
“Dr. Kwami rose to fame on Saturday, September 10 in the wee hours of the morning surrounded by his family in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Dr Kwami was a humble yet passionate child of God – exuding excellence, loyalty, deep faith and an unparalleled work ethic which he embodied as manager of the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers for nearly 30 honorable and prosperous years.
“To know him was to love, respect and cherish him. A born mentor, he gave himself freely to those he loved and invested in the lives of many with a joyful heart.
“We are forever grateful to the community around us and for the outpouring of love and support our family has shown during this extremely difficult time.
“We thank you for honoring the life of Dr. Paul T. Kwami. May his legacy continue to live largely on this Earth as he takes a deserved rest in his bright mansion in his father’s home. Out of respect for the Kwami family, for the time as we ask that you do not contact your family members while we process this unimaginable loss.”