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Wichita's ARISE Ensemble Celebrates 30 Years


African-Americans Renewing Interest In Spirituals Ensemble (ARISE) is celebrating three decades of singing.

"This year we are celebrating 30 years of spirituals and storytelling and the life and legacy of the African American in this country," says Dr. Sharon Cranford, president of ARISE.

The Wichita-based ensemble has performed at the Kansas Capitol and across the state. In addition to their music, the group offers high school scholarships each year and recognizes community heroes at their MLK breakfast banquet on the King holiday.

ARISE will showcase their talent Sunday at a community-wide event. KMUW’s Carla Eckels went to a recent rehearsal and spoke with Cranford about the group's music.

Interview Highlights

How long have you been involved [with ARISE]?

I’ve been involved since its inception. The founder, Josephine Brown, asked me and six other scholars to start a program that would teach African-American spirituals throughout the state, and from that evolved ARISE.

Why is this important to you?

Oh, my goodness! We need to know our history. From the Underground Railroad through the civil rights movement through present day, we teach our stories. Nobody can tell our stories as well as we can. We can tell them and sing them!

What can people expect on Sunday?

On Sunday, they will have a marvelous time in celebrating not just our 30th year, but just celebrating how far our people have come. The cultures that we have connected with and have connected with us and the unity that we are now embracing. We have a multicultural, multitalented and multigenerational ensemble. Some of those who will be singing on Sunday are former members who have come back to join us for this special occasion.

Can you describe what we will see, because I understand its music and storytelling?

Oh yes, and a little praise dance ... you will be able to witness [the full culture]. We will start with the spirituals and the presentations, but we have to tell the stories that undergird those spirituals. They were born in the underground. They brought many of our people out into freedom, and it’s just a wonderful experience.

Now, you are a phenomenal singer. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and singing and becoming a part of ARISE?

Well, I’ve been singing for a very long time. But it’s funny, as a young girl, I did not want to sing. I know that’s hard to believe right now, but I was just kind of quiet. I did not want to sing. It was not until my older siblings graduated from high school that I was convinced to go and try out for the choir and I’ve been singing since.

And what part do you sing?

I sing soprano.

And are you singing a solo in the event on Sunday?

I will be singing a solo, maybe two, and I will be playing Harriet Tubman.

What song will you be leading?

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.

And what does that song mean to you?

I want to be a Christian. We throw that word around so easily but it takes a lot to be a real Christian and that song brings it out. You must have the spirit that God put in us, to be like Jesus, to be forgiving, to be holy, and that’s not something to play with. That’s a very serious matter, and I want God to put that spirit in me.

Why do you think that it’s important to keep negro spirituals alive?

There is an opinion that somehow we have to separate or compete with other music. Spirituals started us off, and so it will be always be something special to us. Spirituals brought us through the Underground Railroad, so we will always love our spirituals. Some of them have been gospelized, some of them have been concertized, but they're still rooted in our ancestors, and don’t we love them? Absolutely we do, and we’re proud that they have created the bridge that brought us to where we are and will continue to struggle for our freedom for all people.

ARISE will perform at Saint Mark UMC at 15th and Lorraine in Wichita on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m.

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Carla Eckels is Director of Cultural Diversity for News and Engagement at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.