For Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president brought hope and the promise of change - and the opportunity to finally get some rest.

"I got so little sleep during the election campaign," said Blyden-Taylor, founder and artistic director of the Toronto-based Nathaniel Dett Chorale. "I stayed up watching CNN all night. I'd come in from rehearsals in the evening and stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. watching.

"I was getting maybe two or three hours of sleep a lot of nights."

A few months later, Blyden-Taylor and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale are making their final preparations before leaving for Washington to perform as part of celebrations for Obama's inauguration next week.

The choir has been invited to perform an outdoor concert outside the Canadian Embassy on Jan. 20 during an inauguration parade that will feature dozens of marching bands from across the U.S.

The chorale will also perform at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian the previous day, Martin Luther King Day.

Blyden-Taylor said he's thrilled to play a small part in such a historic event.

"The thought that we could be doing something to celebrate his inauguration is pretty special," he said. "I just feel quite choked up about it.

"We represent this country and we're proud to do it."

The choir is named for R. Nathaniel Dett, an award-winning black Canadian composer, pianist and choral director who died in 1943.

As conductor of the Hampton Choir, Dett performed at the White House for presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt and also played Carnegie Hall, Boston's Symphony Hall and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

Blyden-Taylor was born in Trinidad before immigrating to Canada from the West Indies in 1973 at the age of 19. Through his 20s, he conducted university and concert choirs, while also teaching conducting and choral technique.

Through all of this, Blyden-Taylor maintained a fascination with black composers. In 1988 he founded the chorale as a group dedicated to "Afrocentric music" - work that's been heavily influenced by African heritage traditions.

"I founded the chorale because there seemed to be a need for an ensemble like mine that would try to approach as many genres of Afrocentric choral music as possible, and try to do it at the highest standard possible," he said. "As opposed to just focusing on spiritual or gospel, we really tried to embrace the gamut of music."

That diversity is reflected in the 21 classically trained vocalists in the choir, he said.

"Visually, the ensemble is mixed - it's primarily of African heritage, but it's also very diverse to look at," he said. "We've got people of several enthnicities in the ensemble, and that speaks to Canada."

Blyden-Taylor said he was initially struck not just by Dett's compositional style or his Canadian roots, but by his character.

"He cared about all the people under his charge, sought to lift them up and in his own quiet way, he'd speak out against discrimination," Blyden-Taylor said.

Similarly, a sense of activism runs through the chorale's program choices.

"We really believe that music is secondary to the message," said bass-baritone Dallas Bergen.

During a fall tour of the southern United States, that message struck a chord. While the reaction to the group's music was mostly positive, one show in what Bergen described as the "reddest part of the heart of Texas" prompted a few audience members to walk out.

"I don't know if it was a South thing or it was just an American thing, because Canadians, even if we hate something, we stick it out, then talk about it later," said soprano Carolyn Williams. "But they couldn't even wait for the intermission, they were just like: 'This sucks, we're out.'

"So that really struck me, that there's a place where if they're not about something, they're really very clear about that."

Bergen said the reaction didn't discourage him.

"Some of our message is very committed to peace and social justice and breaking down barriers between people, and it's also very antiwar," Bergen said. "Some of that hit home and resonated with people in a way that they weren't in favour of, but it was a very small minority.

"So we won't back away from that at all."

Upon returning from Washington, the chorale will take their message on the road again with a two-week sweep across Western Canada.

But first, more long nights for Blyden-Taylor and the chorale. On the morning of their big performance at the Canadian Embassy, the group will get up and leave their hotel at 3 a.m. to beat the parade rush in Washington.

Still, he doesn't anticipate too much fatigue among his performers.

"Visually and sonically and energetically - in every way - we're going to be taking Canada's pride with us when go."


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