Clapping, singing and dancing brought Memorial Church to life this weekend thanks to the Kuumba Singers—a description as fitting for the reaction of the audience as the singers’ performance. Permeated with the strong culture of African music, jazz and gospel, the choir and band moved the crowd emotionally and, in many cases, physically. For two and a half hours last Saturday night, the world was on hold for the overflowing audience as the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College brought the audience to its feet with a spiritual, energetic show.
The show, entitled “Behold That Star,” presented a series of star performances and empowering pieces. Never before have I witnessed so many standing ovations in one performance. Each song in the set evoked a response from the audience, ranging from arm-waving dance to closed-eyed introspection, and director Sheldon K. X. Reid ’96 reinforced the impact of the performance in his sound-bite invitation to join in the power of “interactive experience,” but there was no need to solicit participation. Fathers and daughters swayed in the aisles. Students danced and hollered. Everyone tapped their feet and rocked with the rhythm.
The highlights of the show were the performances from soloists and their incredible harmonization with the mighty sound of the 90-member chorus. From voices reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera, to modern rhythms, to classical selections and back again to tribal hymns, the show captivated observers not just with beautiful music but with a well-constructed tempo.
Kuumba’s rendition of Colorado Mass Choir’s “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” included a duet with such sweet harmony that many in the audience closed their eyes to absorb the sound. Following this performance was a pop-style performance of “Mary Did You Know,” delivered by the Brothers of Kuumba (the group’s small all-male offshoot) and arranged by Reid himself. From the first beat of the Kuumba performers’ snapping hands, the crowd was up and down through a series of cheers within the song. The show’s first half was fast-paced and varied, a completely immersive experience.
The band continued to add to their already-phenomenal variety of sounds and genres. Following the pop sound of “Mary Did You Know,” the drums broke into a strong, smooth beat that had the whole church bobbing and clapping. “Now Behold the Lamb” produced the kind of soulful sound normally associated with artists as Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. But it was one of the song’s soloists, Kuumba president Shola Olorunnipa ’05 who stole the show with unrestrained excitement in her voice, leading the audience (as well as fellow Kuumba singers) to explode with applause.
Interspersed with the power of the music were solemn, spoken passages. In a multitude of ways, Kuumba reminded Harvard students of the importance of the season. One poem challenged listeners, asking “What does Christmas mean to you?”
By the end of the reggae-style song “Thank You Lord,” there was no doubt how powerful the holiday spirit was inside Memorial Church.
Prior to the intermission, Kuumba alum Jason Hines, who graduated from Harvard Law School in ’03, left the audience with one promise: “Hotness is still on the way.”
Bongo drums silenced the crowd as the Kuumba singers returned for the show’s second half, which opened with a powerful reading. Then in the most stunning moment of the night, one singer stood alone on the bleachers and called out while singing voices slowly marched in from all sides, uniting in a huge sound. Then together, they repeatedly called out the word “power.” The crowd was dead silent for the first time during the show, rapt in complete admiration of the magnitude of the group’s entrance.
In a piece recognizing the Kwanzaa celebration, the singers and speakers explained the significance of the seven strongholds of the holiday. One of these strongholds is “Kuumba,” which means “creativity” or “leaving a place better than when you found it.” Following these heritage-rich songs, the group performed “Voices of Freedom,” a vocal collage incorporating fragments of well-known hymns such as “We Shall Overcome.”
One of the most revealing moments of the show occurred when the director asked spectators if any had returned to see the show after seeing it on Friday. No one raised any hands, but a substantial portion of the audience roared their affirmative response.
Following the final song, a stirring rendition of John P. Kee’s “Rain on Us,” the director, president, and other influential members of Kuumba recognized supporters and stars. The night closed with a group benediction, “The Lord bless you and keep you…” As the Kuumba Singers entered their 35th year, the blessing struck deeply for all of those lucky enough to hear their united sound and enjoy their bounding energy.