Sub-Saharan Rhythm

Preview: The Green Choir

There is a strong case that if Sub-Saharan rhythmic techniques, i.e. those found in African drumming, hadn’t been carried across the Atlantic, the sound and shape of twentieth-century popular music would have been totally different. They are fundamental elements of the Afro-American musical genres of blues, jazz, reggae and hip hop. It therefore seems surprising that in much of the Western world ‘African drumming’ is often confined to the dusty corners of record stores where it is dubiously titled ‘World Music’ and consigned to community music groups or cooperate team bonding exercises.

In Durham, however, thanks to the work of PhD student Peter Okeno and a committed group of aficionados, it is a growing presence. From 14 to 24 October, the cobbled streets of Durham, more accustomed to the beat of a brass band, will be marching to something much exotic with the visit of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Green Choir, from Nairobi.

We caught up with the African Drumming and Singing Society president Hugh Williamson to find out more.

Who are The Green Choir?

The Green Choir are a critically acclaimed Kenyan choir, originally branching out from the church choir of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Nairobi but in the present day drawing membership from all over the city. They initially came together to expand their personal knowledge of choral music but since then the group has gained momentum and focus with respect to a number of objectives, in particular this involves raising awareness of issues such as environmental preservation and taking direct action to improve communities through charitable work. As well as local engagement the choir have travelled across the world to participate and compete in music festivals, using their platforms to spread their positive “think green, act green” message.

What is their music influenced by and what is it about?

As indicated by their origins with the St. Stephen’s Cathedral church choir much of the music is religious in nature, but this is far from the standard hymns of English church music! The Green Choir are the pioneers of bringing traditional African dance, instruments and melodies into the choral environment of worship, rooting it in their home culture and bringing a fresh new sound to foreign ears when they travel abroad.

Why are they coming to Durham?

The African Drumming and Singing Society here at the university is based completely around the music of eastern, central and southern Africa, as taught to us by ethnomusicology PhD student and musician extraordinaire Peter Okeno. We in the society are very keen to engage with the roots of the music we perform and when Peter suggested utilising some of his contacts at home in Kenya we jumped at the chance of having a group over. This visit actually follows a highly successful trip to Durham in 2009 by South African group Ngoma Vuma Afrika, also organised by the society, so it’s not entirely out of the blue.
The choir will be performing at a number of places throughout Durham and the surrounding area over the course of the visit, but it’s not just for our pleasure of listening to them that they are here – over the course of the week they will be travelling to a number of schools and engaging with local children too, hopefully showing them a side of music and performance that they would not otherwise be exposed to and giving them a taste of the highlights of foreign culture.

Why should we come and see them?

Seeing music of such origins, quality and authenticity isn’t an everyday occurrence in Durham, so we would hope that that would be more than enough to entice people! Beyond that, attending is a way of showing support for and encouraging more development of such invaluable cultural events in the area – this has been organised by a small group of students (with much help from a number of churches, uni organisations and colleges, to whom we are very grateful) on a non-profit basis, and engagement with individual performances supports the visit as a whole. Coming along to their performances will be great fun for you, and show us that the last four months of stress have been worthwhile!

Performances can be seen at the following times/places:

Saturday 15th October – 2pm, Blackhill Methodist Church, Consett village

Sunday 16th October – 2pm, St. John’s Church, Neville’s Cross, Durham

Tuesday 18th October – 7.30pm, Josephine Butler College, Durham

Thursday 20th October – 1pm, Durham University Music Department, Palace Green, Durham

Saturday 22nd October – ‘Celebrate Africa’, from 10am, Music Department, Palace Green.

Sunday 23rd October – 2pm, Elvet Methodist Church, Old Elvet, Durham

Hosted by the African Drumming and Singing Society, in conjunction with the Ruth First Educational Trust, the Music Department and St. Chad’s and Josephine Butler colleges.

For more information please contact the society at ngoma.vuma@durham.ac.uk

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