Radical tradition: The ‘Slavs’ celebrate 50 years at Yale
With its roots planted firmly in Eastern European folk traditions, the Yale Slavic Chorus may seem an unlikely candidate as a feminist organization on campus. But behind the full skirts and peasant blouses, and the resonant, melodic harmonies, lies a radical current.
“The music comes from a traditional way of life, but there’s a strength and solidarity of women’s experience that comes through in the sound,” says Merideth Wright ’71 B.A. who transferred to Yale as a junior from New York University in 1969, the first year Yale College admitted women. The “Slavs,” formed that same year, was one of the first women’s a cappella groups at Yale.
Anna McNeil ’20 B.A., the Slavs’ current musical director, says the group has served as a “feminist base” for the generations of women who have participated. This past weekend, these generations came together to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, complete with a 130-women-strong concert in Battell Chapel featuring current members and alumni.
The songs the group performs come from Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Georgia, and members learn the oral traditions from group veterans — only a few of whom come from these countries. They also listen to source recordings and travel abroad at least once during their time at Yale to perfect their authenticity. Past groups have traveled to Bulgaria and Georgia, and the current Slavs will head to Croatia next year.
“The songs we sing have beautiful stories,” says McNeil, who was drawn to the group as a way to challenge herself beyond the traditional western choral singing she’d done competitively through high school. “They are very narrative — about young women being sent off to get married, losing their loved ones in war. We look into the history to understand the context.”
Barbara Zera Abramson ’73 B.A., another founding member, says the original Slavs welcomed all comers — including staff and faculty wives. “It was one of the few places you could feel embedded in a community,” Abramson says. “I liked that.” It was the all-male Yale Russian Chorus — with which the Slavs are still closely affiliated — that organized that first women’s group. The male students hung posters in Vanderbilt Hall, where most of the 200+ women were housed on campus, announcing the auditions, and led the early group.
There was an instant camaraderie between the women who found their way to the Slavs in 1969, Abramson says. “Women were sparse on campus,” she says, noting that she was the lone woman in her astronomy class. Wright remembers having to make an extraordinary case for why she should be allowed to do her bursary job at a wood and metal shop on campus, despite ample experience (the financial aid officers eventually relented). “Here you had a group of women you could commune with, drink vodka with before concerts,” says Abramson. “And the women in the group were a little more offbeat — people who were interested in other cultures.”
This desire to delve into the musical traditions and history of Slavic music has been ever-present throughout the generations, and even connects daughters and mothers, like Wright and her daughter Sophia Wright Emigh ’06 B.A., who both sang with the Slavs. Since it was founded, the group has finessed its interpretations and sought out local expertise from native singers. The challenge, note members, is part of the draw.
“It’s an amazing mental exercise to learn music in languages you don’t speak,” says Charlotte Finegold ’17 B.A., who helped organize the 50th celebration. “And I’ve always found it so powerful that the music we sing is from traditions that are cultivated and shared by women. Singing with the Slavs lets you learn new ways to use your voice as well as the feminist history of women who sing this music.”