PLAINVILLE — For over 26 years Nzinga’s Daughters, a vibrant five-woman performance ensemble, has been sharing their gift of songs and storytelling to educate the public about the history and cultural achievements of Africa and the African Diaspora.
The ensemble features Dayna Snell, Alison Johnson, Taffie Bentley, and the band founder, Gail Williams. While performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1994, Williams noticed that the audience was predominantly white. While the listeners enjoyed her music, Williams wondered whether they knew the songs’ origins.
“Everybody came to listen to the music but not everybody knew where it came from, so that’s what encouraged me to start the band and tell people all about its history,” Williams said.
Ever since, Nzinga’s Daughters have been deepening public understanding of African-American history through music and entertainment while also running three programs for children and youth: Nzinga's Watoto, Girls Empowerment program PRIDE, and the Male Mentor Program. All three promote positive youth development among children of all races and abilities throughout Connecticut.
Nzinga’s Daughters are best known for their interactive “Underground Railroad” performances which invite the audience to experience the creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance employed by African American slaves in their efforts to escape slavery.
Since slaves were prohibited from learning to read or write, they developed an elaborate system of communication. They sang songs coded to convey secret information about the route North. Some songs gave directions about when, where, and how to escape while others warned of danger along the way.
“If I were picking cotton and somebody was walking down the street singing ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ I’d know that means the time for my sister and brothers to escape is coming,” said Dayna Snell. “I am going to conduct my business as usual but when the sun goes down and the master goes to sleep, I am going to that secret spot.”
One of the songs of the Underground Railroad was “Wade in the Water.” It had been used as a way to warn runaway slaves to get off the trail and into the water to hide their scent from dogs.
Another song, “Follow The Drinking Gourd” contained essential directions for fugitive slaves. The verses mention drinking gourd, which refers to the Big Dipper constellation. By following the line of the constellation to the North Star, travelers had a guide in the night sky that pointed them toward freedom.
“Slave owners were not smarter than the slaves,” Snell said. “We had to figure out how to get out and how to survive and how to rebuild our lives with nothing. Those who owned slaves were not intimidated by us singing and dancing, they didn't catch any message in that.”
Historically, music has been used to help overcome difficult times, Snell believes. The social and political climate of any era is reflected through art, with music being a powerful inspirational expression of ideas.
“The history of the Civil War is embedded in music. Similarly, when COVID hit Italy, people would come out on their balconies, sing and play instruments,” Snell said. “Music always seems to be helpful in both good and bad times. It helps bring joy and relaxation.”