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Merlene Davis: Exhibit showcases cultural music

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Each culture in the United States has a type of music that was created by its people and stirs their souls.

From those diverse roots, we have been blessed with folk and dance music, country and Bluegrass, and gospel and the blues.

Just how much do you know about each genre? How much have you explored the joy and pain of a different culture through its music?

Probably not enough.

The Historic Paris-Bourbon County/Hopewell Museum wants to change that.

The museum is one of six locations in Kentucky through December that will host New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit that first came to the state in 2008.

This time, however, it is being paired with an exhibit of still photography and videos of worship services in our region called Now Let Us Sing: The African American Gospel Music Experience in Central Kentucky.

The Kentucky Folklife program, an effort of the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Arts Council, filmed interviews with area gospel singers and musicians, and photographer Bobby Shiflet of Paris visited black churches to capture the emotions he saw for Now Let Us Sing. He said there should be 20 to 30 of his photographs in the exhibit.

"I am a very curious person, and I love experiencing other cultures," Shiflet said. "I've always been fascinated by black gospel music."

Shiflet said black people have historically relied on their faith during difficult times, and it became the source of their strength. He spent about seven months visiting black churches in the area and special presentations they held.

"I hope I can do it justice," he said. "It was just a great experience for me. I saw spirituality that you just can't fake."

The exhibit that it will complement, New Harmonies, is a product of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street branch that brings exceptional programs and exhibits to rural America through U.S. Congressional funding.

Nancy R. Smith, executive director of the Hopewell Museum, said the one caveat is that the local community or organization hosting the exhibit must respond with something of their own. It was decided to enhance the sacred music section with local gospel.

Smith said Hopewell's two larger galleries and a smaller one will be filled to capacity with both exhibits.

She helped to set up the New Harmonies exhibit in the Oldham County History Center in LaGrange, where it is showing through Saturday. It will open April 28 at Hopewell, with a special reception April 29, featuring refreshments and gospel music by choirs from Centerville Methodist, Silas Baptist and Veaches Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal.

Although the hands-on exhibit is basically the same as when it showed in Winchester in 2008, it has been refurbished, Smith said.

"It really is pristine," she said.

Visitors can hear examples of each genre at kiosk-type displays. They can play spoons or pluck a diddley bow, a string instrument whose roots trace to Africa. They can also listen to music by country legend Jimmie Rodgers or gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

One station shows how the banjo was born in Africa, recreated by slaves in America and then became essential to Bluegrass music.

The sounds of Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith and a Navajo chorus will all be experienced in one place.

The exhibit is a collaboration of the Smithsonian, the Kentucky Humanities Council, Kentucky Folklife and local sponsors in Paris.

"This is an opportunity to see not only a Smithsonian and fabulous musical exhibit, but to also see a community and regional exhibit in action that everyone can enjoy," Smith said, adding, too, that the new Now Let Us Sing exhibit "is something that has not been done here before."

Shiflet agreed, saying he hopes the exhibit will be a catalyst encouraging more of us to explore other cultures.

"I hope that it will make people more curious about others," he said. "We are missing out."

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