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Arts: The beauty of Brookgreen set to music

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The sights and sounds of Brookgreen Gardens have been set to music, and two concerts next week will introduce the collaboration between Ron Daise, singer-songwriter, Gullah preservationist and vice president for creative education at Brookgreen, and 33 students from Coastal Carolina University.

The first performance of “A Hushed Thrill: Brookgreen Gardens” will be in the Palmetto Garden at Brookgreen next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. with the Coastal Carolina Jazz Combo. A second concert will be held in the Edwards Recital Hall in the Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts on Friday, Aug. 26, at 6 p.m. Receptions will follow both performances.

Daise spent a year writing lyrics describing his feelings about Brookgreen. Some are in Gullah dialect like “On De Cypress Trees” set to a Calypso beat describing the giants of the swamps: “Lissen, I tell ya bout de cypress tree. It gotta good lesson fa you an me — When ya let good roots grow roun and roun / Ain no skrong wind can / blow ya down! / Oh, dis one magnificent tree. / It stan tall, it legendary. / You don’t call de roots, roots — no dey call knees / On the cypress trees.”

Eight songs, each in a different musical genre, have been recorded by Daise, his wife, Natalie, and the students. Working through the college’s Athenaeum Press, they produced a CD. In addition to the Calypso song about cypress trees, others are presented in jazz, gospel, hip hop, folk ballad, pop, Afro-Brazilian and lullaby styles. Daise said the jazz number, “I Just Think of You,” was recorded with an orchestra at Coastal Carolina. The chorus describes scenes of Brookgreen: “In the sun, the turtles poke out their heads / The otters glide and chatter / The wild turkeys strut. I watch the display / But you’re the only thing that matters / I think about you / I just think of you.”

Other songs include the fox squirrels, honking geese, wood ducks, egrets, blue herons, and, of course, the silent sculptures. And with the beauty, there is history. “Slave songs echo through the rice fields, / through aged oaks, gardens and ferns,” Daise says in the pop song “The Sights and the Sounds.”

Daise said he met Matt White, an assistant professor of music at Coastal Carolina University, at the Georgetown County Library during a presentation about another college collaboration involving the music of St. Helena Island, his home. He asked White about doing a similar project at Brookgreen Gardens, and the collaboration began.

White paired students with their strongest genre of music, and some came to Brookgreen to understand the inspiration for the lyrics. “The full expanse can only be experienced when here,” Daise said.

White challenged the students to produce an inspired CD. “It was rewarding to watch the process and see it function in a group setting where they had to solve unique problems together at all stages and depend on each other to meet deadlines, offer criticism and make the best product possible,” he said.

Daise said he found the students remarkably adept at taking his audio and developing instrumental arrangements and vocals of their own. “It was a great collaborative effort,” he said.

Next Thursday’s concert coincides with a milestone for Brookgreen Gardens.

“This exciting project is being released during Brookgreen’s 85th anniversary observance, and it lets listeners know what a wonderful treasure Brookgreen Gardens is,” said Bob Jewell, president and CEO. “In addition to the songs, the CD offers narrated introductions to them that were crafted from guest comments. The lyrics and music will be a pleasant reminder to some and an invitation to many.”

The CD will be sold in the Brookgreen Gardens gift shop.

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