Marlena Smalls was 13 years old and uncertain about her voice. In a family full of singers, Smalls didn’t consider herself especially talented. Then she took the stage in a talent showcase, and her voice – deeply rich and mature for her age – distinguished itself for its power and grace. That was the first time Smalls realized she, too, had a gift. And since then she has been sharing it with the world, as a performer, actress and educator.
Smalls, with the Hallelujah Singers, has taken the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands in South Carolina and exported it to the world. With three CDs and a never-ending touring schedule, Smalls and her troupe of singers are preserving Gullah dialect and customs. Smalls has become an authority on Gullah culture and its link to West Africa. A Hallelujah Singers performance is by design both entertaining and educational. The singers say the show is music and storytelling, “with a dramatization of some of the unique personages, rituals, and ceremonial dimension that played an important part in shaping the Gullah culture and how its influence lives on in the broader music and culture today.” The Gullahs who remain on Sea Island are descendants of West African slaves who worked the rice and cotton fields before they were freed and offered a chance to purchase their land. As whites deserted the coast in favor of milder climates inland, the Gullahs lived in isolation for generations, allowing them to maintain their African culture longer than any slave descendants in America. The Hallelujah Singers have three CD’s: Gullah – “Songs of Hope, Faith & Freedom” (1997); “Joy — A Gullah Christmas” (1998); and 1999’s “Carry Me Home.” Smalls was born in Ohio to South Carolina parents. She began singing in Ohio and went to Central State University there before embarking on her singing career. Her talents took her around the globe. She toured heavily in Europe, performed for the Queen of England and held a concert in the famed Frankfurt Opera House in Germany. She also landed a role in an Academy Award-winning film, in which, ironically, she did not sing. Smalls played the role of Bubba’s mama in the film “Forest Gump.” But not even an Ohio upbringing and a well-worn passport could sever Smalls’ link to South Carolina. In 1985, Smalls founded the Gullah Festival in Beaufort which would celebrate the culture and preserve its many traditions. By 1990, Smalls had formed the Hallelujah Singers.