In ‘Soaring High,’ African rhythm meets contemporary sound

Omelika Kuumba during a performance at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Omelika Kuumba during a performance at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

It was telling of Omelika Kuumba’s spirit that on her birthday, her first after losing both parents within eight months of one another, she would give a concert in their honor.

Near the end of her show last September, surrounded by fellow musicians, Kuumba launched into a djembe drum solo, its bright rhythm gathering speed and intensity. Audience members clapped with her. Some came down to the stage and knelt in front of Kuumba, moving to the beat. As Kuumba radiated energy, she continued to breathe, a still point at the center of a vortex of rhythm, sonority and motion.

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Omelika Kuumba (center) is seen playing the djembe drum at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Omelika Kuumba (center) is seen playing the djembe drum at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Omelika Kuumba (center) is seen playing the djembe drum at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Kuumba was playing Balakulanjan, one of several traditional African rhythms that Kuumba and her ensemble “Soaring High” have blended with elements of house, reggae, neo-jazz and contemporary soul music. The group has since recorded the program of original songs and arrangements, which they’ll perform live in a concert and album release party Sunday, May 22 at the City of South Fulton Southwest Arts Center.

The music, accompanied by dance and projected images, sheds light on the challenges and triumphs African Americans face, as well as life’s joys and loves, with value placed on family. It has also been a source of healing for Kuumba, who, as with many others, has faced personal loss during the pandemic.

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Romero Beverly (center) is seen playing the dunun drum set at a performance at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Beverly will perform in “Soaring High.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Romero Beverly (center) is seen playing the dunun drum set at a performance at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Beverly will perform in “Soaring High.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Romero Beverly (center) is seen playing the dunun drum set at a performance at Spelman College in Atlanta on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Beverly will perform in “Soaring High.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Four years ago, Kuumba stepped down from her role as artistic director of Giwayen Mata, the “All-Sistah” African dancing and drumming group. She’d planned to continue to work in this vein through her own platform, Sistah with a Nia, LLC, and didn’t expect to delve into contemporary music until November of 2019, when Ken Rye, producer and marketing consultant, called her. He was putting together a series of concerts at a Grant Park venue and asked Kuumba to create a music set showing the relationship between African drumming and songs in other genres of the African diaspora.

Kuumba began composing — but the April 2020 show was cancelled due to the pandemic. She watched the racial reckoning of summer 2020, and in November of that year lost her father to complications after heart surgery. A month after his death, the Alliance Theatre invited Kuumba and an ensemble of five artists she had gathered to perform in the outdoor Under the Tent series in the spring of 2021. The invitation brought Kuumba to tears. “I felt like my dad was giving me a nice hug from the ethers.”

The Alliance show sold out and was so successful that artists and others encouraged Kuumba to record her compositions and produce a fall show at the Windmill Arts Center on her birthday — a precursor to her upcoming concert at the Southwest Arts Center.

Kuumba’s mother, with whom she was close, helped raise funds and gave ongoing support. Kuumba’s determination to offer a live music experience — increasingly rare in the electronic age — brought several more musicians into the fold, including lead vocalist Andaiye Scott and relatives from a prominent Detroit jazz family, among them percussionist Gayelynn McKinney, flute and saxophone player Carol McKinney-Robinson and Grammy award-winning keyboardist Carlos McKinney.

“Soaring High” begins on a lighthearted note, with comic artist Shannon Byrd, followed by Kuumba’s song titled “Soaring High,” which layers bass guitar, violin, trumpet and keyboards with Fanga, a traditional welcoming rhythm. “Fankani” then invites audiences in with a jazz solo on saxophone which carries the audience deeper into the multi-textured Malinke rhythm and song.

The evening takes a sober turn, calling out racism in “9 MIN 29 SEC,” a response to the murder of George Floyd, and an acknowledgement, said Kuumba, of “all ancestors who were taken down unjustly.”

Kuumba’s vision then progresses into a space of love and respect for others. To reggae beats, the band pays tribute to the “African Man,” and then to “Sistah Soldiers” who’ve fought battles for civil and human rights. Balakulanjan, a Malinke rhythm traditionally played to help bring children into a village, ushers in “everything we need to give birth to healthy, strong communities,” Kuumba said. Her extended drum solo can intensify joy until the feelings, and even spirits, of people in the room seem to take flight.

Kuumba’s mother had passed away just six weeks before the September show. Rather than lead her to cancel the show, it gave Kuumba added resolve. As her drumming whipped up energy in the theater, she felt like both of her parents “were just reaching down and giving me a hug” through the audience members’ positive energy and responses. It was an example of how art continues to offer ways to heal and cope with loss.

“It gives you a way to have connection with the living,” she said, “and being able to share that joy with other people” who reflect those feelings back.

“The reciprocity, the ebb and flow,” she said, “That’s what keeps me moving.”


MUSIC/DANCE PREVIEW

“Soaring High” album release concert and party

May 22. Doors to foyer Marketplace open at 1:30 p.m., pre-show performance by Egun Omode at 1:50 p.m. Concert begins at 2:22 p.m. with party afterwards. $35-$50. Patrons are encouraged to wear masks while indoors. City of South Fulton Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road SW, Atlanta. Eventbrite.com.