Gullah-language Bible now on audio CDs
ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. — More than three decades after translators began putting the words of the New Testament into Gullah, everyone can now hear those words in the creole language spoken by slaves and their descendants along the sea islands of the nation's Southeast coast.
"Healin fa de Soul," — "Healing for the Soul" — a five-CD set of readings from the Gullah Bible, including a dramatized version of the Gospel of John, was released this month at the Penn Center, founded in 1862 as one of the nation's first freedmen's schools after Union troops captured the area during the Civil War.
The sea island culture — called Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia — remained intact with descendants of slaves because of the isolation of the area.
Although numbers are uncertain, there are thought to be 250,000 Gullah in the four-state coastal area and thousands are thought to speak Gullah as their main language.
The CDs are the largest collection of Gullah recordings ever made available to the public and rival those that noted linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner made on sea islands during the 1930s, said Emory Campbell, a former director of the Penn Center who performs on the recordings and worked on the Bible translation.
Some of Turner's recordings are part of the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit "Word, Shout, Song" on display currently at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
"I would say this is as extensive," Campbell said. "They are very accessible. People can buy them and personally own them and I think they have a much better opportunity to study the language."
The readings are based on the Gullah Bible, "De Nyew Testament." Translation into Gullah began in 1979 and the full testament was published by the American Bible Society in 2005.
Campbell said the recordings, made earlier this year, show an important step in acceptance of Gullah, which native speakers tried to abandon for decades because they were taught to be ashamed of their heritage.
"Those of us involved in this project are overwhelmingly of the culture. Heretofore it has always been outsiders coming in recording us, sometimes reluctantly on our part," he said. "This was done willingly by us."
The CDs will help spread Gullah beyond the moss-shrouded lanes and marshy ocean inlets along the coast, said Ron Daise, a native of St. Helena Island who also performs on the CDs and is best known as a host, with his wife Natalie, of the children's television show "Gullah Gullah Island" in the 1990s.
"Since the publication of the Gullah Bible there has been tremendous interest from non-Gullah speakers who would read but if they tried to pronounce it, would not know if they were doing it correctly," said Daise, who also wrote several songs included in the collection.
The recordings, he added, may help older Gullah speakers interpret the written words of the Gullah Bible while youngsters will be able to follow passages as they hear the audio.
Two of the CDs are entitled "Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing" — Scripture that Heals — and includes 196 passages on topics such as marriage, peace and financial matters. The other three discs are the dramatization of the Gospel of John — "De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write."
In all, 24 Gullah readers, most of them form the South Carolina coast, perform on the recordings.
The set is available through the Penn Center Web site ( http://www.penncenter.com ) for $20.
Daise said that the CDs are both a way to spread knowledge of Gullah and as a tool for Gullah speakers.
"But at its core, it's a spreading of the word of God. That's why the title "Healing for the Soul," he said.