As the sun set on May 9, the amphitheater was brought to life with the powerful rhythmic beating of African drums and steady melody of African marimbas. For once, the amphitheater attracted an audience to enjoy live authentic African tunes from the Chinyakare Ensemble.
Physics and Astronomy professor Eric Harpell organized the entire event with the blessing of Cindy Rosefield, the de facto music event coordinator. According to Harpell, the rare use of the amphitheater inspired him to pursue a performing arts grant.
The grant was approved and he had secured funding to sponsor a musical performance for the school. He immediately employed the help of Catherine Ndungu-Case, a friend of his founder of the Cheza Nami foundation. She was the key for bringing in the Chinyakare Ensemble to LPC’s door.
“I know a lot of folks here who would really benefit from some cultural programming from that part of the world,” Ndungu-Case said. “I wanted to partner with the school to be able to afford the students and staff an opportunity to travel to a different part of the globe without having to leave their campus.”
For nearly an hour and a half, the seven members of the Chinyakare Ensemble connected an LPC audience to Africa with their music, dance, interactive performances and short anecdotes.
Chinyakare means “We are many, all in the deep tradition of the arts of our ancestors” in the native language of Zimbabwe, ChiShona. One Zimbabwean instrument of theirs called the mbira illustrates this. It is a tuned idiophone forged by the grandparents of Augustine Basa, a band member.
Basa sang as the harvest song and dance, Madé, was played on the marimbas, drums and mbira while band members danced to it.
Another traditional African instrument used was a chipendani, a one stringed mouth bow. Russ Landers, a band member, played a tune about baboons using it by palpating the strings.
To get the crowd into the music, one of their songs required the crowd to chant “Chemutenguré”. It literally means wagon driver but it is a metaphor about work. “It’s about the hard challenges and the joy of work,” Russ said. Basa’s booming voice cued the crowd in to chanting “Chemutenguré” back.
The modest-sized crowd managed to gather up enough energy for a dance led by Telisa Chkamba. Children, parents, students and teachers all danced along with the sounds of African tribal music. For a while, they were inundated in music that originated from a different continent.
Basa, a Zimbabwean native, joined the group when he arrived in 2010. His mother had wanted a way to keep African tradition alive while being in a foreign land. To stave away homesickness, she started teaching people Zimbabwean dances and songs, according to Landers.
At the end of the performance, the crowd was invited to ask questions. The crowd then learned that the ngundu and chuma are traditional headdresses worn by men and women respectively for special ceremonies. The ngundu, a headdress made from ostrich feathers, is exclusively worn by men. The chuma, a hair band made of beads, are hand made and worn by the women. Both are used as a respectful gesture when playing traditional music.
Not only did the audience catch a glimpse of African music, they learned about a culture. “Exposure to diversity affords people an opportunity to be more respectful and also to understand why people behave the way they do” Ngundu-Case said. “We go beyond sharing diversity. Being able to afford students an opportunity to learn diversity, we also afford them an opportunity to learn about the performing arts.”
As a teacher and a native of Kenya herself, Ngundu-Case knows the power of music in sharing knowledge. “Music is the best way to learn anything,” she said. “Music has a way of touching the part of the brain that opens up other doorways of learning and research has proven it. So through music, you can really learn a lot.”
On that note, the amphitheater turned into a classroom for an evening. Now, beside the Barbara Mertes Center for the Arts, it sits patiently, waiting for the next teacher to come while the green grass grows and grows around it.