Black Voices’ Carol Pemberton on singing with niece Laura Mvula

Carol Pemberton has performed with the likes of Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Ray Charles and Hugh Masekela during her extraordinary singing career. And next month the founder and musical director of a cappella quintet Black Voices will share the stage with another huge talent – her niece, singer and composer Laura Mvula.

Black Voices and Mvula will open the London A Cappella Festival (LACF) with a programme honouring iconic female artists. Songs by Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Carole King and Simone will be reinterpreted in what promises to be an epic display of powerhouse vocals.

Fittingly, the gig will mark a major milestone for the LACF – the festival’s tenth anniversary.

But first to Mvula, of whom Pemberton says: “I’m a seriously proud auntie. There is nobody like her in the UK. She is her own spirit – a phenomenal musician, vocalist and songwriter.”

There’s talk aunt and niece will duet, but Pemberton is coy about revealing too many details only saying she’ll be an “emotional wreck” before stepping on stage at Kings Place.

Pemberton has sung professionally for decades but still gets nervous before every gig. “But once we start singing, all that goes,” she says. “We [Black Voices] have been together for so long, we know each other’s voices inside out.”

The Black Voices line-up includes Pemberton (who sings bass), Cecelia Wickham-Anderson, Beverley Robinson, Sandra Francis and Shereece Storrod (artistic director).

The daughter of parents of the Windrush Generation, Pemberton grew up in Birmingham as one of ten children. She was always told: “You have to be twice as good to make it”.

She dreamt of becoming an interpreter but, put off by the years of study this required, took a job singing backing vocals and never looked back.

“Back in the 80s you sometimes did it just for fun, and a fiver for a drink and the taxi home,” she says.

She became an established figure on the Birmingham music scene, singing backing vocals for the likes of The Fine Young Cannibals and UB40. But things changed when she saw the all-female African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in The Rock perform.

“I thought ‘there’s no one in the UK doing anything like that’ and decided to start a female a cappella group and perform music inspired by the black oral tradition.

“It was a challenge that made us draw on every music influence and all of our musical knowledge.”

Support came from many quarters: Ken Burton and Bazil Meade were influential, as was Mark Kibble from Take 6, who has arranged many songs for the group over the years.

Some of the big stars they’ve performed with have also shared advice. Of Ray Charles, Pemberton says: “When we opened for him at the Barbican in London he said: ‘You’ve got everything, you’ve got the connection, you just need to learn to get off stage quicker’. We always used to sing our way off stage, and he obviously didn’t like waiting in the wings.”

Black Voices sing a mix of gospel, jazz and pop songs and have one guiding principle: “We don’t ever sing throw away music. If we don’t connect with a song, it’s not in our repertoire. It can be a fun song, but it must be real, and we have to have that connection.”

It’s proved a recipe for success. The group have toured the world, and sung for Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and the late Princess Diana.

Their hearts, though, remain rooted in their home city of Birmingham. The group are embedded in the local music scene and provide education outreach in schools and communities and are Associate Artists of Birmingham Town Hall Symphony Hall.

Pemberton was presented with an MBE in 2014 for her contribution to music but has no plans to slow down.

“I’ve loved the past 30 years – it’s been so much fun, and the highs have outweighed the lows. I hope we can keep going for another 30 years.

“Being asked to open the LACF in their tenth anniversary year feels very special too. I’ve always wanted to perform at the festival, and to have Laura there too will be very emotional.”

LACF 2019 runs from 23 to 26 January. This years programme includes the award-winning Barbershop choruses The Cottontown Chorus and London City Singers, American pop-jazz vocal sensations m-pact and three of the UKs best university a cappella groups The Techtonics, The Rolling Tones, and The Bristol Suspensions. For listings of all performances, workshops and talks CLICK HERE.


Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.