Essential Listening

Essence of Joy celebrates three decades of sharing African and African American traditions through music.

Essence of Joy group

For 30 years, student choral group Essence of Joy has been wowing audiences in a genre of music that the group’s founder and director says has been underappreciated.

“For too long, African and African American music was not honored by the professional choral community,” says Anthony Leach ’82 MMus, ’96 PhD A&A, retired choral music education professor at Penn State. “Now it is recognized and celebrated, especially as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement.” That shift has been bolstered in Pennsylvania through Essence of Joy, Penn State’s choral ensemble that performs sacred and secular music from African and African American traditions. The group, which debuted in January 1992 at the university’s annual MLK banquet at University Park, has performed internationally and has inspired two sister ensembles: Essence2, a community choral group based in State College, and Essence of Joy Alumni Singers (EOJAS), which pulls together former members of the university ensemble for concerts in cities across the Northeast.

“We gather not only because we want to but because we like and love and respond to the people with whom we’re making the music, and the opportunity we have to share the music with audiences near and far,” says Leach, who is closing out his leadership of Essence of Joy this spring. After more than a year of not gathering to sing due to the pandemic, all three groups had resumed preparing for a season of in-person concerts, with music focused on faith, hope, and justice. “All of the choirs are blessed to have music composed specifically for them,” Leach says, including compositions by Raymond Wise for Essence of Joy, Donte Ford ’14 A&A for EOJAS, and Stan Spottswood for Essence2.