Celebrating the Songs of Sorrow

This week, the Kuumba Singers are releasing a recording of their Spring 2002 concert entitled One More River. In keeping with Kuumba’s mission of “celebrating black culture and creativity through song,” the album is divided between soulful a cappella spirituals and energetic gospel songs backed by the talented Kuumband. The choir is irrepressibly exuberant on the opening song, “Psalm 1,” while on “Psalm 121,” the soloist attains a feverish pitch that the choir seems to soothe. Kuumba also shows off its vocal range technical precision in close harmony in the mournful “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

Kuumba’s greatest strength is the energy, honesty and passion of its performances and this recording amply demonstrate this flare. Songs like “Get Your House” highlight the interplay between soloist and choir, as the soloist leads with an ornamented phrase (“Get your house in order!”) and the choir responds with a potent punch (“Do it today!”) One song opens with W.E.B. Du Bois’ Class of 1890 description of the “sorrow songs,” and builds on heart-rendingly bare renditions of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Down in Egypt Land,” giving a beautiful account of the origin and progression of spirituals.

Recorded live in Memorial Church, the sound definition on the album is less crisp than it might have been had it been recorded in a studio setting. While it does retain much of the energy of the performance, it is difficult to make out exactly what the words are in the vastness of the Church, which is frustrating when the lyrics are so passionately rendered. The concert itself was considerably longer than a single CD allows, so the songs have been culled down to album length, reducing three of them to brief “Interludes.” Though the technique works as far as giving a sense of different moods of the concert, the songs do feel truncated compared to their length in performance and the inclusion of applause at the close of some songs makes its edited absence at the end of others sound a little odd. Yet the album is a fitting tribute to the awesome power of Kuumba’s performance, both for those who were there to see it and for the yet-to-be-converted.

Kuumba will be hosting a CD Release party in Pforzheimer House this Saturday with live entertainment from the Kuumband.