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Berklee brings cultural unification through music

Musicians gather at the Berklee Performance Center Thursday night to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the creation of Berklee’s Africana Studies program. PHOTO COURTESY PRITHVI TIKHE

The words “Black Music Matters: Defining Our Traditions” are projected on the back wall of the stage in the Berklee Performance Center. Pianists, keyboardists, guitarists, horn players, percussionists and a choir spread throughout the stage as the lead of each act was front and center in the spotlight.

On Thursday, the Africana Studies Department of Berklee College of Music performed in the Berklee Performance Center to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the creation of the Africana Studies program as a curriculum focus.

“There were a lot of concerns at Berklee that the program was based on the music of the African diaspora, but it didn’t celebrate that in its mission statement,” said William Banfield, a professor and director of Africana Studies at Berklee. “It celebrates implementing black music studies as a curriculum and tonight is its milestone.”

However, this concert was different because Patrice Rushen returned along with Morris Hayes and Stokley Williams, creating “a powerful combination of music and arts,” Banfield said.

Rushen is a recognized pianist, vocalist, keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and music director for Prince and Janet Jackson, as well as a teacher.

Hayes was the music director for Prince and Williams, while Williams is a drummer and the lead singer of the R&B band, Mint Condition. These artists represent many traditions of music over four generations.

“People will be able to see and hear again about the importance of artistry in the contemporary marketplace,” Banfield said. “I think artistry in the 21st century needs to be rebooted.”

The media has spun music to make it a commodity, Banfield said, and technology hinders the value of music because of its accessibility. There are bigger issues in society that artists deal with than just the performance, Banfield said.

Despite the large showing of people for the concert, Banfield said he did not have expectations regarding attendance.

“If five people, one person, or no people show up, that’s a concert,” Banfield said. “I tell artists to always perform every concert like it’s an important event and play with the same commitment to the art and ideas. That’s what makes an artist.”

Audience members, who included students taking Banfield’s course, said they had looked forward to the night’s performance. Victoria Scott, a junior studying professional music at Berklee, heard about the concert through Banfield, aware of its importance to African music.

“I believe that in some ways African music is American music and a lot of the music that we listen to, but I don’t think it’s recognized as African music,” Scott said. “I think if it was identified as an African diaspora from the African culture and people understood that, then people would celebrate it more.”

The show opened with Banfield’s speech, in which he thanked faculty, students, stage directors and Rushen for helping him put on the show. He continued to say he is currently teaching students to transform the world through music, rather than conform.

Assistant Chair of the Liberal Arts Department Mike Mason presented Rushen, Williams and Hayes with the Warren L. Carter Award for contributions to music, education and community engagement.

The performances began with Jeff Ramsey, a professor in the voice department at Berklee. He performed a medley of The Isley Brothers songs including “That Lady,” “For The Love Of You” and “It’s Your Thing,” with many runs while demonstrating range. The musicians also shared the spotlight with a guitar solo, as the audience clapped along in rhythm and shouted encouragements.

Following the medley was a tribute performance to Al Jarreau, a recipient of Berklee’s honorary Doctorate of Arts, of “We’re In This Love Together” from his album, “Breakin’ Away.” The saxophone melody carried through the venue.

A soul medley filled the room, including Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand!” and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” The performers encouraged the audience to clap along as they sang with passion.

Rushen performed a fusion of Chaka Khan’s “You Can Make The Story Right” and “I’m Every Woman,” dedicating the performance to her vocal ensemble.

The night capped off with Stokley’s cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The backdrop became a sultry purple and the audience joined the performers in unison and waved in a slow, rhythmic motion.

Jackie Foster, a junior studying vocal performance at Berklee, said she thought it was a great concert paying homage to African-Americans and the influence they have had on American music throughout history.

“Each of the award winners who were honored tonight stole the show and opened up a lot of students’ eyes,” Foster said. “It’s really inspirational.”

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