Community Spotlight: Afrika Hayes Lambe
February 18, 2021
In honor of Black History Month, we highlight one of our long-standing community members, a descendent of a distinguished musician, and a noted soprano herself, Afrika Hayes Lambe.
Known affectionately on campus as Mrs. Lambe, Afrika Hayes Lambe has been accompanying young dancers with her musical talents in both Walnut Hill’s Dance Department (now Boston Ballet School’s Professional Division at Walnut Hill) and the Community Dance Academy for more than 15 years. The depth of her repertoire and musical knowledge are underscored by her ability to play the piano from memory. She is well-known for choosing a musical theme each day, and matching each piece to the specific needs of both the students and instructor, from classic Tchaikovsky to upbeat Broadway musicals. As fashionable as she is musical, Mrs. Lambe’s wardrobe styling is legendary: she wears a bright color for each specific day of the week, and has followed suit with a matching mask during the pandemic. She has been an integral part of many dancers' lives at Walnut Hill, watching them grow from their younger days at the Community Dance Academy to their graduation from Walnut Hill School for the Arts. When the pandemic hit, and she was given the opportunity to continue accompanying remotely, she instead insisted on returning to work with the dancers in socially distanced in-person classes. Her dedication at the age of eighty-seven is truly inspiring.
While she is beloved by many here on the Hill, her career and her family’s musical legacy may be unknown to some in her midst. Prior to her time at Walnut Hill, Mrs. Lambe had a successful career as a soprano and as a music teacher for Boston Public Schools. She earned her Bachelor's and Master’s degrees from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Her career as a soprano led to performances such as Porgy and Bess with the Lenny-Debben Opera Company, and the title roles in Carmen and Cosi fan Tutte with City Center in New York City. Her time in Boston included performing for the Opera Company of Boston, as well as being a soloist for Trinity Church and the Unitarian Church of Wellesley. In addition to Walnut Hill School for the Arts, she is an accompanist with the Dance Department at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and formerly with Boston Ballet.
Afrika Hayes Lambe was born in 1933 to Helen Alzada Mann and Roland Hayes, the legendary Black American tenor, who shattered racial barriers in the concert world, sang throughout Europe, performed for King George V and Queen Mary, and filled the great concert halls of America for more than forty years.
Mrs. Lambe’s father Roland Hayes was a self-made artist. The son of an emancipated slave, he left school at eleven years old to help his mother. Growing up, he was introduced to music through Mt. Zion Baptist Church, singing in the choir and learning spirituals from elders in the community. A recording of an Italian tenor inspired him to pursue his talents in classical voice. He began to study music seriously, even though he only had a sixth-grade education.
Roland first took lessons from Arthur Calhoun, and eventually was able to attend Fisk University in Nashville, studying under Jennie Robinson. He became a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and traveled to Boston while performing with them. Upon his return to Nashville, his lessons were abruptly terminated, forcing him to leave Fisk. Having fallen in love with Boston, he decided to return there to find work. He was able to further his studies in Boston with Arthur Hubbard, who agreed to give him lessons only if Hayes came to his house instead of his studio. He did not want Roland to embarrass him by appearing at his studio with his white students.
With each success, he encountered racism and inequity, which he worked tirelessly to overcome. Unable to find a sponsor for his first classical recital, Hayes raised two hundred dollars of his own money to rent the famed Jordan Hall in Boston. His second concert, held at Boston Symphony Hall, sold out entirely. Successful both financially and musically, he was shunned by the classical music world, who refused to consider him a top performer because of his race. Feeling his studies lacked something, he eventually left for Europe, completing his studies with composer Roger Quilter in England, and composer Gabriel Faure in France. All of this led to his performance at Wigmore Hall in London, followed by a command performance before King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. After garnering fame and success in Europe, he returned to Boston in 1923 and debuted as Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first Black soloist. By the 1920s, he was one of the highest-paid male recitalists in the world.
Roland Hayes blazed a trail for generations of Black singers, such as Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and Paul Robeson. He was acclaimed for his expressive interpretations of songs in French, German, Italian, and Russian. It was his elevation of spirituals, learned as a boy in church and family gatherings, that led future Black artists to demonstrate pride in their cultural heritage by routinely incorporating spirituals into their recitals.
Our 2021 Black History Month speakers, Davron Monroe and Yewande Odetoyinbo, have a special connection to the Hayes family story. They most recently portrayed Roland Hayes (Davron Monroe) and Roland’s mother, Angel Mo’ (Yewande Odetoyinbo) in Breath & Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes at the Lyric Stage Company in Boston.
Watch below as Afrika Hayes Lambe talks about the role of her father in Breath & Imagination. Video produced by ArtsEmerson.