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 announced in a statement to the Tennessean Saturday night. Kwami was 70.
“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 as in our community and in our world,” the statement said.
“Dr. Kwami passed onto glory on Saturday, September 10th in the early morning hours surrounded by family in Nashville, Tennessee.” (The family’s statement appears in its entirety at the bottom of this story.)
During his tenure, Kwami led the Fisk Jubilee Singers – Nashville’s longest-running musical institution – into a celebrated modern era. Founded in 1871, the touring group was the first to introduce “negro spirituals” to an international audience. Over a century later, Kwami took them to unscaled peaks.
In 2021, they won their first Grammy award for the “Celebrating Fisk” album, recorded live on stage at the Ryman Auditorium. They returned to the stage that same year to celebrate their 150th anniversary.
“Dr. Kwami was a real bridge for the Fisk Jubilee Singers from the past into the future,” said Nashville music producer Shannon Sanders, a frequent collaborator with the troupe and a man Kwami called “my brother” from the Ryman stage earlier this year.
“Dr. Kwami was the bearer of the torch,” Sanders said. “He definitely held it high so Fisk Jubilee Singers might see their way.”
Kwami saw the Fisk Jubilee Singers earn a National Medal of Arts and enter the Grammy and Gospel Music Halls of Fame. In recent years, he led the group onstage at Carnegie Hall, as well as PBS’ airwaves. But each semester, as new Fisk students joined their ranks, achievements like those weren’t at the top of Kwami’s mind.
“First of all, I teach them about the sacrifices that the original Fisk Jubilee Singers made,” he told The Tennessean in 2020.
“Their travel happened at a time when slavery had just ended, at a time when many people did not expect much from African Americans, even though they were very intelligent…if the original (group), young students, could make that kind of sacrifice, we should follow and do the same.”
The current Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have known of Kwami’s illness for weeks, sang a hymn in a hallway outside his midtown Nashville hospital room last month, Sanders said.
That performance of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” moved a few family members, singers and hospital staffers to tears.
“It was gorgeous,” Sanders said. “The kids sang it with such reverence.”
A music teacher, just like his dad
In an extensive 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 a music teacher, lifted the boy onto his lap before playing piano in their home. The younger Kwami hummed along with the music and stared, enraptured, at his dad’s fingers flying across the keyboard.
As a child, Kwami often tagged along when his father conducted rehearsals for church and school choirs. When the boy got home, he often stood in front of his bedroom mirror mimicking his father’s hand motions — the same motions Kwami used as an adult when he became a conductor.
Kwami grew up one of seven children, and all of them worked on the farm, garden and coffee plantation the family owned.
Kwami’s dad insisted on the same work ethic for piano lessons — Kwami couldn’t play on Sunday afternoons with the other boys until he was done practicing.
Still, the boys played lots of soccer, and they sometimes scrambled to the top of the highest mountain in the town, where German missionaries had erected a giant cross.
“We would sit there and view the rest of the world from there,” Kwami said quietly.
As most kids from his town did, Kwami went to a boarding school for high school. There, Kwami cemented his plans to be a music teacher, just like his dad.
After graduating, Kwami attended two years of teachers’ school before enrolling in the then-new four-year National Academy of Music in Ghana, where he stayed there after graduation to teach.
Kwami started playing organ for a church in town. He got 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 that Kwami go to Fisk University in Nashville as an undergraduate to continue his music studies. Kwami had been considering studying in the U.S. — 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 never went to Nashville, never heard of Fisk, never heard of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
Still, he applied because he trusted the missionary, because he was a friend of his father.
‘A man of family and faith’
Kwami got accepted and got a scholarship from the missionary’s church to go. He left behind his parents, his wife and a job he loved for a school he didn’t know.
He did so with his father’s support and pride. But the night Kwami flew out of Ghana, his father collapsed with emotion, sensing he would never see his oldest son again. That proved to be true.
At Fisk, Kwami immediately connected with the university organist, McCoy Ransom, who became Kwami’s mentor.
A classmate encouraged Kwami to try out for the Jubilee Singers, but Kwami wasn’t going to Fisk to sing; he was going to be a better teacher and a better musician.
The classmate kept encouraging Kwami to apply, and when he found out the Jubilee Singers musical director was Ransom, Kwami showed for auditions.
After winning a spot in the ensemble, Kwami quickly learned of the Jubilee Singers history, importance to the university, importance to the world of music.
After the Jubilee Singers first photo shoot, Kwami got a picture and sent it to his dad.
Kwami went on to earn a master’s degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where his wife joined him. Kwami’s father died just after he earned that degree.
Nearly a decade after graduating from Fisk, Kwami returned to campus as musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1994. Kwami kept that title until he died.
“There are not enough superlatives to describe Dr. Kwami, a talented, humble treasure with a drive and a vision for excellence for the Fisk Jubilee Singers,” said Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
“I don’t believe Fisk or Nashville truly understands 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 of the ways that matter, we too are his family — and his dedication to the Jubilee Singers, our school, and a generation or more of Fisk students was how he lived out his faith.”
Funeral arrangements will be announced “in coming days,” the family’s statement said.
Before closing a Grammy celebration concert last year, Dr. Kwami was inspired by a Bible verse written above the portals of Fisk Memorial Chapel, where the group performs.
“I’ve always believed Fisk is a shining star, and will continue to shine brighter and brighter,” Dr. Kwami said. “So I quote from Isaiah Chapter 60, Verse one, which says, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.’ Amen.”
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Statement from the family of Dr. Paul T. Kwami on 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 as in our community and in our world.
“Dr. Kwami passed onto glory on Saturday, September 10th in the early morning hours surrounded by family in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Dr. Kwami was a humble yet passionate child of God – exuding excellence, loyalty, a deep faith and an unmatched work ethic that he embodied as the Director 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 natural born mentor, he gave of himself freely to those he cared for and invested in the lives of many with a joyful heart.
“We are forever grateful for the community that surrounds us and for the outpouring of love and support that our family is being shown in this extremely difficult time.
“We thank you for honoring Dr. Paul T. Kwami’s life. May his legacy continue to live vastly on this Earth while he takes a deserved rest in his bright mansion in his Father’s house. Out of respect for the Kwami family, for the time being we ask that you please refrain from contacting family members as we process this unimaginable loss.”