On Wednesday, Oct. 15, Oswego State students and local residents were treated to music all the way from Africa, as the Senegal St. Joseph Choir gave a show in St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption.
Senegal St. Joseph Choir was founded by Julien Jouga who was the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Ambassador Artist for Peace. Now the choir is under direction by Ambroise N’Diong. Jouga arranged many of the choir pieces, combining African, Christain and Muslim musical traditions into many songs, in many Senegalese languages. In addition to touring, they also are the choir for St. Joseph of Medina Church.
The show began with announcements from Pastor John Hogan of the church and Dr. John Shaffer, the Director of Arts programming. Following the introductions, the Oswego State Singers, directed by Mihoko Tsutsumi with guest percussionist Max McBride on the congas, performed a two-song set.
The first song of the set was an African Christian spiritual titled “Vamuvamba,” and featured tenor Zachary Riley who sang with the choir in a call-and-response style later in the piece, as well as a lead role. The second piece, “Tshotshoroza,” was an African folk song, and featured tenor Peter Garlach on a powerful, belting lead section with the choir as the response. This piece also featured the bass section, which sang a repeating patter along with the drums that served as the rhythm section for the lead and the soprano, alto and tenor countermelody. In both pieces, the choir stepped back and forth to keep the rhythm.
After a short break, the choir came and setup. The choir of four men (including the director) and seven women, dressed in black and white robes (they would change into traditional African wear in the second half), began the concert with three a cappella pieces. The first, “Fala La,” a traditional song to begin a concert, they sung as they were walking out. They produced a surprising amount of sound for eleven singers, combining many elements of African and Western Christian music.
The next two songs were American spirituals. The first, “You Better Mind,” began with a vocal version of the opening chords of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which got a laugh from the audience. The next was the gospel song, “The Storm is Passing Over,” was very rhythmic, with a lot of stops and pauses. The piece ended with the choir repeating the melody on the title phrase with a fade to the end. Later in the first half, they performed a piece called “Requiem,” which took the music of Mozart’s Requiem and set it to the Wolof language of Senegal. To open the secind half, they performed the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” masses in Portuguese Creole.
The rest of the first half was filled, as was the second half, with more traditional African music. The three drummers, dressed in green and blue in the first half, and one in blue and the other two in orange, were fantastic, easily performing polyrhythms and texture changes throughout each song. They could reach such a volume with their animal skin drums, that they adjusted with shims and rocks, that it sounded like thunder in the church.
Before the intermission, the drummers had time to do a set by themselves, which showed off their incredible skill. The audience, however, was not expecting anything when the lead drummer stopped the group and asked, “Are you sleeping?” The crowd laughed, but still was unsure what to do. The drummers eventually engaged the audience with call and response vocals. The same thing happened during the second act, when the drummer stopped the whole group and asked the director to ask the audience if they were sleeping. They laughed, and the director gave the audience call and response vocals to do.
Throughout the African tunes, soloists would occasionally step out from the group to do call and response vocals, and in many of the tunes, the women would step out and dance to the drumbeat.
The director was a crowd favorite for his dancing and solos, which he often sang right to the crowd, and to individual people with warm, cheeky, smiles.
It was a great experience in a great venue to enjoy music from Africa.