By Lauren Hershey
“I found you could raise your voice and talk out loud in the world.”
– John J. McCloy
Wambugu, the former director of the Kenyatta University Choir, is the first recipient of a collaborative program between the music departments at Kenyatta University and UF. Upon traveling to UF as a graduate student, Wambugu spoke with Robinson and thought that it would be a wonderful idea to organize a choir at the university that could sing and perform songs originating from Africa.
“I wanted to perform songs as authentically as possible,” Wambugu said. “Instead of singing Swahili songs to a rock beat, I wanted to have something more from the horse’s mouth, from the streets
and the people.”
The purpose of creating the choir, Wambugu said, was to showcase what choral music in Africa is all about, to share the inherent sense of multiculturalism that only the direct experience of music performance can deliver. The choir also provides Wambugu the opportunity to share what little he can about his background with students who have a passion to learn.
So last September, the first ever Africa Choir began at UF. Wambugu admitted that he wasn’t sure how it would be received, and with about 30 members at the onset, it seemed the choir would need a lot of time to get off the ground.
“It was a standing joke between myself and Dr. Robinson,” Wambugu said. “He wanted the first meeting to have 150 people in the choir, but I believed that we should start with something small and let it grow, let it blossom. In that way. the choir would have a firmer foundation and be more stable.”
Lauren Pollock, a senior anthropology student and music minor, recalls her excitement at seeing posters in the music building at the start of last semester.
“I had always wanted to get involved in a non-audition singing group, and the uniqueness of the African aspect caught my eye.”
That specific “uniqueness,” the enthusiasm and the comfortable atmosphere of the relaxed practices held once a week would propel the choir, still a fledgling organization on campus, to the prestige it now has in its second semester.
The name of the choir is the Pazeni Sauti Africa Choir, “Pazeni Sauti” being a Kenyan phrase in Swahili meaning “raise your voice.”
During practices, Wambugu teaches music from the African continent by rote, without written music. The music is memorized and, in turn, Wambugu feels, internalized.
“They know the song and what it means, so when they sing, the meaning just comes out,” he said.
Pollock feels it too.
“Singing my heart out even though I have no experience at all, learning beautiful languages from all over the continent, dancing and not caring how crazy I might look, and just letting go, not stressing, and just being content with the state of things for one hour out of my week — it’s really quite a priceless experience,” she said.
Learning the songs allows the members of the choir to experience different languages spanning the African continent.
“So far, we have sung in about nine or 10 languages, from countries including Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Botswana,” Wambugu said.
In its performance, the choir has spread its wings and enthusiasm. The first performance of the choir, for the Center of African Studies, stands out for Wambugu.
“It was different because the choir members were interspersed within the audience,” he said. “I would sing a cue, and members would start singing from various points in the room. The audience response was immediate and very positive.”
The performances of the choir reflect the ideology of African culture.
“The whole aspect of performance and audience is a Western concept,” Wambugu said. “In traditional
African music, you just sing, and everyone joins in. It’s an everyone affair. We try to reduce the gap
as much as possible and try to get the audience to participate, to sing along and dance, to be part of the show by singing and experiencing it for themselves.”
In two semesters, Pazeni Sauti has become something greater than a collection of diverse members.
One of the things Africans are known for is a sense of community, Wambugu said.
“The family is part of a broader community; the community is a huge part of everyone’s life, be it a tribe or a location where you live. Everyone around you becomes your family. I’ve seen that now in the choir, where at the beginning everyone dispersed but now after rehearsals, people just hang out and linger. Now people have been getting together, which has created a community of its own. This bond is physically visible to audiences and people not in the choir and has been experienced through their energy.”
Pollock feels like the more the choir gets out and performs, the more members of the university and community come out of the woodwork to join.
“I can’t tell you how many of our new members this semester have told me, ‘I saw the Africa Choir perform at the Jazz Band concert last semester, and I thought they were awesome,’ or ‘I heard you at an African Studies event and had to check it out for myself; it looked like so much fun,’” Pollock said.
“Because of the spirit we spread when we perform, I feel that our choir has grown a lot, and we are reaching people every time we sing.”
The choir has had been performing increasingly more often. The Harn Museum’s “Journey Through Africa” Museum Night in February showcased the Choir, singing three sets in different galleries, the people flocking towards the progression of music. Pazeni Sauti also performed recently at Sigma
Alpha Iota’s Haiti Benefit Concert. The choir further received Internet recognition as a live performance aired on Live Vibe TV, a program merging the School of Music and the digital world.
With the growth of the choir into a powerful and audible community, various events have stemmed from the choir members themselves. The choir is currently working toward its first stand-alone concert debut on April 18 at the University Auditorium at 7:30 pm. The audience will see the choir in their traditional garb, performing and showcasing a diverse repertoire of traditional African music.
A prospective goal that the choir hopes can be realized is performing at the American Choral Directors Association National Convention next year. If selected to perform at the convention, Pazeni Sauti will be able to bring its music to a national level, which could, in turn, provide a platform for their most treasured goal — of going to Africa to perform, conveying their love and commitment for the choir back to its point of origin. Pollock wants to journey “to the place where all of our beautiful music comes from. It has inspired me and going there could only bring me more fulfillment.”
Wambugu also hopes to spread the songs of the choir beyond the university and into Gainesville and elsewhere. After performing at a Choral Invitational that hosted 12 high schools from across the state at UF and receiving
invitations from several of those schools to perform, Wambugu aspires to take the choir to visit some high schools across Florida in the next academic year.
Wambugu believes, like many who have experienced the power of the lifted voices of the Pazeni Sauti, that the performances and the members have been incredible, and have shaped the maturation of the Choir into what it’s become today.
“The choir members are outstanding, and the love they share for the choir is truly humbling for me,” he said.
In two semesters, the choir has truly raised its voice and been heard, receiving many responses from its initial call. Wambugu hopes to one day see the choir stand on its own.
“I am a student here. If I can leave UF and hear about the choir still standing firm and strong 10 years down the road, that would be my pride and joy. Having the knowledge that people who are part of Pazeni Sauti are teaching others songs that they learned here and spreading information about their culture and experience, wherever the world leads them, would mean so much to me.”