Singing Redemption: Jamaica Day Part 2

On the evening of Friday, February 27, I was sitting in Kingston’s Emancipation Park in the front row of a sea of white chairs. In front of us was the domed stage, with bright colors sliding across its ceiling. It was time for the U.S. Embassy’s Black History Month concert – a tradition of over twenty years – which always takes place on the last Friday of February. Jamaican and U.S. flags fluttered in the gently retreating breeze on each side of the stage (evening always brings calm, no matter how rough and windy the day has been).

Aisha Kahlil, getting warmed up on "Redemption Song."
Aisha Kahlil, getting warmed up on “Redemption Song.”

And so, we heard the African American vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock – singing, among a delicious variety of stirring and thought-provoking songs, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”  As they sang, Bob’s smiling face lit up the screen behind them. An audible sigh rose from the audience, and we smiled back. Bob, Jamaica misses you; believe me, it does.

Aisha Kahlil (who has been with the group for 32 years) stood up as the song picked up momentum. It started off uptempo, then seemed to settle down to a steady reggae rhythm. Ms. Kahlil’s vocals became more insistent, more exploratory. Her hair trembled around her face as her energy became more concentrated. Her voice began to leap here and there; in short, high bursts she expressed a kind of intense joy. Prior to this song, she had sung mostly in a lower key. Now, she improvised in a series of wordless, high-pitched cries, reminiscent of Marley’s triumphant call-and-response sessions with his audiences. Throughout, sign language interpreter Shirley Childress, a sweet and loving presence on the stage, translated the song for the hearing impaired. (She also stayed after the show to chat with hearing-impaired Jamaicans from the audience).

Sweet Honey: Sisters singing for Bob.
Sweet Honey: Sisters singing for Bob. At left is sign language interpreter Shirley Childress, who learned from her deaf parents and is a founding member of the Black Deaf Advocates Association. She has interpreted for African American authors Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.

Perhaps some Jamaicans in the audience did not quite know what to make of this. But there have been oh, so many versions of this quiet song (from Stevie Wonder to Jackson Browne to Rihanna). Please help me sing “these songs of freedom,” Marley ends up, a gentle request.

Yes, that word “freedom” again. If you read Part 1, you will recall that the young woman at the Abilities Foundation equated “freedom” with human rights. And how right she was. Sweet Honey In The Rock sang those songs all evening – including some from their early years in the 1970s, when that word was on everyone’s lips. Those were the civil rights years of “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Now, Reggae Month, Black History Month and the month of Bob Marley’s seventieth birthday is over. It is already March 1. So you can call this my small tribute to Mr. Marley.

Shirley Childress spreading joy...
Shirley Childress spreading joy…

Thank you, Bob. Just thank you. And yes, we are still singing songs of freedom, despite everything. Don’t worry.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Mr. Mendez, Sweet Honey's bass player, who is of Jamaican descent. His proud grandfather was in the audience, and he did some rocking solos.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Mr. Romeir Mendez, Sweet Honey’s very powerful bass player, who is of Jamaican descent and who has his own quartet back in Washington, DC. His proud grandfather was in the audience, and he did some rocking solos.

 


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