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‘Sweet, beautiful voices’: When a troupe of African American musicians sang at the Taj Mahal in 1889


After spending nearly three and a half years touring and performing throughout New Zealand and eastern Australia, in October of 1889, the Fisk Jubilee Singers sailed from Melbourne for South Asia. Since their formation in 1871, this group of African American vocalists had met with critical acclaim and cheers from large audiences in North America, Britain, continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, they departed from Melbourne aboard The Orizaba uncertain of how Indians and Europeans in the subcontinent would respond to their unique vocal performances of African American Spirituals.

Their first stop was Colombo in Ceylon, where music aficionados hoped to see the troupe in concert. The Singers thoroughly enjoyed sightseeing in the historic city. But they could not book a performance hall large enough to seat all the potential attendees. Unfortunately for the Singers, this setback was not the only ordeal they would encounter while en route to India. As they departed Ceylon in November 1889, an enormous cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal imperilled their ship. The Singers were almost certain that, even if The Orizaba circumvented the storm, they would miss their first concert in Calcutta. By a stroke of fortune, the ship pulled into Calcutta port unscathed, and the Singers…

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