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May 4, 2017

Concert brings UMass together in support of Haiti

There is something about the shared experience of live music and dancing that erodes national borders, negates the separation of geographic distance and translates across cultural and linguistic boundaries. In times of crisis, these divisions are momentarily forgotten when people remember that besides their country and their culture, the people in need are also human. Music often serves as the impetus for sympathy and interconnectedness. In doing so, it channels itself towards alleviating the scourge of poverty, disease and natural catastrophe.

Such was the phenomenon that occurred last Feb. 11, in the concert hall of the UMass Fine Arts Center, where residents of Amherst and surrounding towns, along with students from the Five Colleges, gathered for the Stand up for Haiti Benefit Concert.

Produced to raise funds on behalf of Partners in Health, an international non-profit healthcare organization, the concert was a central place for nearby communities to come together and contribute not only their money, but also their thoughts and prayers in the hope of making a contribution to relieve the people of Haiti.

The concert featured performances by several UMass student associations and music ensembles, supplemented with stellar local and national talent. The night was kicked off by a couple of dance numbers performed by the Haitian American Student Association and the South Asian Student Association dance teams, whose passion and energy set the thoughtful-yet-optimistic tone for the rest of the evening’s performances.

Next to take the stage was Steve Tracy, an associate professor of African American Studies at UMass. He showcased his undeniable mastery of the harmonica and the blues. His arresting performance recalled several characteristics of Jimi Hendrix, injecting his songs with massive volume swells that reverberated around the concert hall like feedback. Of the many sounds he coaxed from his instrument, one even resembled the percussive effects of a wah-wah pedal on muted guitar strings that Hendrix used in songs such as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” A particular standout from his performance was an emotional rendition of Amazing Grace.

Following two solid performances by UMass Jazz Ensemble I and smooth Latin-jazz group Creacion, the concert was elevated to another level by Los Angeles a cappella group Sonos. The sextet composed of Jessica Freedman, Rachel Bearer and Katherine Hoye, along with Ben McLain, Chris Harrison and Paul Peglar, graced audiences with their innovative a cappella arrangements of seminal popular and indie songs, whose imaginative reinterpretations were expressed with daunting vocal prowess.

After Sonos performed, the curtains closed and the spotlight was shifted to a podium in front of the stage where Haitian-American Poet, Lenelle Moïse stood up to give a dramatic and impassioned recitation of several poems concerning the disaster in Haiti. The brief respite from the music was welcome as it offered a moment for thoughtful reflection. It presented a reminder to the audience that while they were enjoying the evening’s entertainment, people in Haiti were clinging on to survival as they grieved for lost loved-ones, and struggled to rebuild their nation. She touched on several key themes, including the history of economic exploitation at the hands of other nations, like the United States, that sunk Haiti into the depths of poverty and amplified the horrific consequences of the earthquake.

Virginian folk-rock singer-songwriter, Erin McKeown, shifted the concert back to its musical focus. Charismatic and engaging, she delivered her songs with haunting lyricism. Her voice meandered over the words as if she were reading poetry tinged with subtle hints of melody. For her final song, she called upon the audience to assist her by humming back-up vocals, accentuating the theme of togetherness expounded throughout the concert.

After McKeown, instrumental jazz quartet FlavaEvolution performed, led by saxophonist Frank Newton, the Interim Program Director at the FAC who also produced the night’s concert. Continuing the theme of audience participation, FlavaEvolution invited concert-goers to sing the vocal hoop together as part of the quartet’s final song.

Martin Sexton, a folk singer-songwriter from Syracuse, NY, injected the show with a heavy dose of personality and charisma; his engaging stage presence never diminished even when he forgot the words to his own song. Singing with only his guitar, Sexton fused folk, rock, blues, country and other genres to create a musical medley further enhanced by his exceptional vocal range.

The final performers to take the stage were the internationally acclaimed Young@Heart Chorus from Northampton – featuring talent no younger than 70 years old. Youthful exuberance was certainly not lacking as they brought the concert to a climactic finale, with McKeown and Sonos joining them on stage. Their emotionally rousing performance ended the show on a fittingly optimistic note, highlighting the success of the concert at raising funds and bringing the community together in observance of the crisis in Haiti.

Though the struggle in Haiti wears on, the Stand for Haiti Benefit Concert was a successful step forward in the effort to relieve Haiti from the devastation after last month’s earthquake.

Andrew Cogan can be reached at acogan@student.umass.edu.

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