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Kuumba Singers celebrate spirituality and history

Ada Lin | 11/29/2013, 6 a.m.
“Sankofa,” the young woman proclaims, as her voice reverberates through the hall, “means go back and take.” These words echo ...
The Kuumba Singers were formed at Harvard University in 1970. The choir performs songs that celebrate the richness of the music, dance and poetry of black culture and history. (Photo courtesy of Kuumba Singers)

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(Photo courtesy of Kuumba Singers)

The Kuumba Singers, led by director Sheldon K.X. Reid, will hold its annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert on Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 at the Memorial Church in Cambridge. The performance is titled, “Go Tell It!”

“Sankofa,” the young woman proclaims, as her voice reverberates through the hall, “means go back and take.”

These words echo through Memorial Church in Harvard Yard on a windy winter night in December as hundreds of listeners gather to celebrate the richness of the music, poetry, and dance of the black diaspora at the Kuumba Singers’ annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert.

For the Kuumba Singers, “sankofa,” which is a word in the Akan language of Ghana that refers to the reclaiming a history, has a special meaning. Founded in 1970, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College was established as a safe space for black students at Harvard and on neighboring campuses during a period of racial tension at both the university and in the nation.

At times, the small community of black students found themselves among a student body and administration that was less than welcoming.

By 1968, the African American studies movement had reached Harvard and the university’s burgeoning program featured a class on African American music, taught by a young lecturer named Hubert Walters. Two of his students, Dennis Wiley and Fred Lucas, began to imagine that a choir could provide the kind of political and creative solidarity that the college’s black community had been seeking, and established the Kuumba Singers, with the mission of celebrating the creativity and spirituality of the music of the African diaspora.

For them, establishing an enduring venue for this mission was a deeply political act. The early years of Kuumba were not easy for the tireless founding members. Distrust and lack of support from the university led the choir to be largely itinerant, moving from location to location to find a place where they could sing.

They spent late nights stacking and laying out chairs in the cafeteria of the Radcliffe Union, and held rehearsals in their rooms, with their director, Robert Winfrey, sitting in a place of honor on a dorm room bed. After futile efforts to attain a permanent rehearsal space, they even moved off campus for a time in search of support outside of Harvard.

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(Photo courtesy of Kuumba Singers)

Over its history, the Kuumba Singers have performed in many venues on Harvard’s campus, including outside on the university’s grounds.

Although Kuumba, which is quickly approaching its 45th anniversary, now has a permanent space in which the choir rehearses, proclaiming, “sankofa,” still resonates with the historical memory of the early political struggles of the organization and of its fight for recognition and dignity.

The choir is now more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse than it was in 1970, but there is no doubt that it is just as committed to the unapologetic celebration of a music and tradition that has often struggled to achieve true recognition for its artistic achievement. Led by its current director, Sheldon K.X. Reid, Kuumba’s Christmas 2013 concert is themed, “Go Tell It!” in reference to the choir’s mission to share its powerful history and mission with the Harvard and Boston communities.

Referencing both the African American spiritual, Go Tell It on the Mountain, as well as James Baldwin’s 1953 novel of the same name, “Go Tell It” will feature energetic spoken word pieces, praise dance and joyful and powerful singing. As Langston Hughes wrote in his poem, “Spirituals,” “Rocks and the firm roots of trees. The rising shafts of mountains. Something strong to put my hands on. Sing, O Lord Jesus! Song is a strong thing.”

The Kuumba Singers’ annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert will be held on Friday, Dec. 6 and Saturday, Dec. 7 at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. Both concerts will be held at 8 p.m. Tickets are free and available at the Harvard Box Office or through Jasmine Gipson at business.manager@kuumbasingers.org. For more information visit www.kuumbasingers.org.

Ada Lin is a Harvard Senior and serves as Director of Publicity for the Kuumba Singers.