New choral work delivers message of freedom

Courtesy Photo Babatunde Olatunji

Uhuru means freedom in Swahili. It’s also the title of a song by the late Nigerian drummer Babtunde Olatunji that means freedom to the world now — a poignant and timely message to be delivered via a new choral arrangement by Shane Jewell and sung by the Free Range Folk Choir at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, at the Vashon High School theater.

Last year, choir member and percussionist Gordy Ryan introduced Jewell to Olatunji’s song “Uhuru,” believing it fit the mission of the choir. As a longtime friend of Olatunji and member of his band, Drums of Passion, Ryan knew the work well.

“It’s so beautiful,” Ryan said, “so I wrote it out for Shane. He loves songs that call for freedom, which is topical to this moment. He heard us play it with a full band and then worked on it for six days. On the seventh day, he had the whole arrangement in his head.”

Emily Pruiksma, co-founder of the choir with Jewell, remarked that singing the piece is a powerful experience. The song is sung in three languages and cycles through three aspects of freedom: the first is working for freedom; the second is fighting for freedom; and the third is about keeping and nurturing hard-fought freedom.

“This week in particular, Olatunji’s message really comes home,” Pruiksma said. “It feels like a gift from his legacy. Music is a powerful medicine and something happens when we come together and sing. Our community needs a way to express courage, love and solidarity.”

Jewell and Pruiksma founded the Free Range Folk Choir in 2008, after the economic downturn, with a mission to sing world music to uplift the spirit and cultivate community.

“We realized the joy we have in each other’s company comes not from the outside but from the inside,” Jewell said. “In times when grief and fear rise up from the world around us, it is essential that artists of all sorts bring us together and practice joy.”

Olatunji understood well the need for joy and the call to freedom. Born a king in an area in Nigeria, he left his native land for a larger world arena. According to Ryan, he had a universal mind and found friends in Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, President Kennedy and John Coltrane among many others.

“Olatunji was a universal figure,” Ryan said. “He had a strong intention that his music keep moving forward. Baba always had such joy singing “Uhuru.” I can feel the (concert) as a fulfillment of that. I’m so happy and grateful that Shane took up the baton to make this arrangement.”

Author, journalist and Hollyhock co-founder Rex Weyler wrote that Olatunji and his band toured the world “spreading love and forgiveness with song, wild bell rhythms and cracking sticks on the way-way-off beat that sent shivers through a thousand spines, and probably through the forests and cities themselves. I still recall that voice that could split the molecules of the air and open some great emptiness that held all our failures and our greatest moments in a wisp of breeze or a crescendo of pure energy.”

Along with the premiere of Jewell’s arrangement of “Uhuru,” Monday’s family-friendly concert will feature Ryan’s intricate drumming and the choir’s vocal harmonies from Africa, America and Europe.

Suggested donation is $5 to $10 at the door. For more information, visit freerangefolkchoir.blogspot.com.

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