MANY African American women have been celebrated for their superb voices, but less well known has been their dedication to the civil rights movement.

This is something that East Lothian-based Andrea Baker is determined to put right with her show Sing Sistah Sing! which is set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

An artistic trailblazer herself with an illustrious singing career, Baker’s show focuses on her own fascinating background as well as profiling singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Baker’s great-grandfather was born a slave and was the first African American to gain a PhD in philosophy from the prestigious Yale University.

“All of his children went to university too and I discovered that two of his daughters, my great-aunts, were integral in helping African Americans perform classical music in Harlem after the First World War,” says Baker, an internationally celebrated mezzo soprano.

“It has been quite astounding to find that I have carried on the tradition of classical music in my family. I also found out that my great-aunt, Catherine van Buren, was an opera singer and both of us made our European debuts in the great American opera Porgy and Bess. She performed in 1955 in Russia behind the iron curtain.”


SHE made her American singing debut in 1994 with San Francisco Opera and sang her first operatic solo stage role under conductor Donald Runnicles, from Edinburgh, who later became conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. She had another Scottish connection there with Ian Robertson, former chorus director of Scottish Opera, as chorus master.

Later, working as an opera singer in Germany, Baker met her future husband, Ronnie Herd, another Scot, and after moving to Australia they returned to Scotland in 2005. She became a UK citizen five years ago.

Sing Sistah Sing! is the first show she has written, produced and directed – work she describes as an “incredible labour of love”.

“This has given me an extraordinary opportunity to find my artistic voice and it is exciting for me to be able to sing different kinds of music, such as jazz, opera, blues and even wee a bit of disco,” says Baker. “One of the women I feature is Donna Summer, who is also from Massachusetts, so I think there is something for everybody in the show. It is also good fun telling my own story – storytelling is a Scottish art form that I’m trying to get my head around.”


SOME of the other African American singers featured include opera star Elizabeth Greenfield and blues singer Linda Hopkins.

“African American women singers have been celebrated for their music but a lot of these women were trail blazers in the civil rights movement and that is less well known,” says Baker. “They have even contributed to the countries they adopted as home such as Josephine Baker [no relation] who received a commendation for her work in helping the French Resistance.

“Ella Fitzgerald helped young African American children become adopted. She was integral in making sure that young black children were on the lists to get into homes and also adopted a child herself. That really made a difference because back then black children were not seen as desirable adoptees.

“And Marian Anderson singlehandedly desegregated performance venues as she performed at a big concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she was refused the right to perform at a venue in Washington DC. The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a member of the organisation that denied her, so she made sure she played – 75,000 people turned up and after that the Daughters of the American Revolution were forced to rescind the order keeping their concert hall segregated.

“These women used their voices for change and made life better for people. That is not celebrated enough. Their singing voices are, but what they did behind the scenes had more impact than people realise.”


FOR the Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, Baker is joined by?acclaimed pianist Richard Lewis with artistic direction by Carolyn Sittig. A CD of musical highlights from the show has already been released on?Birnam.?

“Sing Sistah Sing! is a voyage of discovery, both of my own personal history and that of African American female trailblazers worldwide,” says Baker. “Most importantly it is a vehicle to inspire and bring people together through diverse musical genres and storytelling, crossing barriers of race, language, and nationality.”?

Lewis, a former SNP Edinburgh councillor, says:?“It’s a cliché, but this show truly includes something for everyone. Whether your interest is in jazz, blues, disco, opera or art song you are bound to find something to appeal to you – and you will be moved by the stories of these extraordinary women who had to overcome so much to allow their voices to be heard.”?

Sing Sistah Sing! can be seen at the Assembly Rooms (Venue 20), in George Street, from August 19-26.