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Experience diversity through music

After coming from rural Georgia, Jowanna Malone found Boston a little frightening at first. The pace of life in the city was so much faster and busier than what she was used to at home.

Since joining the Havard College Kuumba Singers, however, Miss Malone has become a woman of the world.

As publicity manager, she was one of 55 members of the group who recently performed in Bermuda.

The Kuumba Singers are dedicated to the expression of black creativity and spirituality through song.

They sing everything from spirituals and gospel to traditional African music.

“I am a Latin major,” she said. “There aren't a lot of other people in my major although I also take a lot of science classes. I joined Kuumba as a way to meet new people.”

Kuumba was founded in 1970 after a major strike at Harvard, and two years after the assassination of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

The number of black students at Harvard was then growing, and the choir became a source of unity, strength, and inspiration during a turbulent time in American history.

Since then, the Kuumba Singers have travelled throughout the United States and to other countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Germany where they have performed for such people as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte and Bobby McFerrin. They were last in Bermuda in 2004.

For Matthews Mmopi, president of the Kuumba Singers, and Nyamagaga Gondwe, tour manager, the Kuumba Singers were a way to stay in touch with their roots in Africa.

Mr Mmopi's parents are from Botswana and South Africa, although he has spent much of his life in the United States.

“I started with Kuumba during my freshman year,” said Mr Mmopi, who is a senior at Harvard. “I had just got to Harvard and I was interested in getting involved in an extracurricular programme that was invested in creating community and would allow me to get to know a good group of people at the college.

“I thought Kuumba was a great segue into that community. I thought they celebrated something that was really important to me, which is black creativity and culture. A lot of their values resonated with my own personal values and it was a perfect match.”

He said it had been an interesting experience living in South Africa and the United States and seeing how people identified themselves in each country.

“In America you get a sense of identity as a black person, whereas in Africa a lot of people are black,” he said. “It is something that you are aware of, but it is not something that is made known to you because of other people.

“It is made known because of your culture, not in response to different groups of people living in a continent.”

Miss Gondwe's parents are from Zambia, although she spent part of her life in Kenya and the United States.

She said she was currently looking at how Zambian music could be incorporated into the repertoire of the Kuumba Singers.

“It is not easy, because the music has to be able to be broken into different parts so that a choir can sing it,” she said. “We sing a whole range of music from the African Diaspora.

“We sing negro spirituals from the African American tradition. We sing African traditional songs. We sing contemporary gospel and we sing master choral works.

“We are trying to expand our diasporic reach so we have done songs from South Africa, Nigeria and we are doing some songs from the Caribbean and we are learning and reaching out to different parts of the Diaspora.”

She is majoring in African and African American studies and linguistics, but unfortunately she does not speak the Zambian language of Nyanja.

“It was fairly easy staying in touch with my culture growing up,” she said. “My parents are very culturally attuned.

“My mother still cooks the food and my parents talk about what it was like growing up. I feel like I really know about the culture. Most of my relatives are still back there.”

Miss Malone said she had learned so much about African and African American culture through the group.

“I am from Georgia,” she said. “My roots are from the south. My mother is from Alabama and my father is from Georgia.

“I am pretty in touch with the southern black experience. Being at Harvard in general, but being in Kuumba especially, there is such diversity within. You see how the black experience in America is not monolithic, but is very diverse.

“You have people from Africa, African Americans, people from the West Indies, and so on. It has opened my eyes to see how diverse black people in America actually are.”

If you missed the Kuumba Singers, they have two albums available: ‘Our Spirit Stands' and ‘One More River'.

Useful website: www.kumbasingers.org.

Harvard University's Kuumba Singers perform at a Boston Red Sox game.

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Published March 23, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated March 23, 2011 at 9:45 am)

Experience diversity through music

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