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'Underground Railroad' a ride through a vast cultural landscape

By Aaron Calvin, Entertainment Editor

There is perhaps nothing so singular and powerful as the Underground Railroad in American history. There is no more appropriate way of addressing and exploring the invisible network that helped black slaves escape slavery than "A Ride on The Underground Railroad," presented Sunday by Hofstra University music department.

The accomplished but relatively new faculty of the music department, Dr. Nkeiru Okoye, acted as master of ceremonies for the musical romp through African American culture, giving valuable background to each piece.

The event began with the gospel piece "Wade in the Water," arranged by Chandler Carter. This powerful piece expressed well the desperation of slavery and the trials runaway slaves faced on their way to freedom.

This was followed by the world premiere of "Fantasy for Violin and Chamber Ensemble, No.1: The Gospel Train," by Julius Williams. The piece put a new twist on traditional Americana, encompassing the soul of black music since the age of slavery. Gospel always harkens back to its chained roots.

Following this was a light, short, but deeply pleasurable rendition of the classic ragtime piano tune "Maple Leaf Rag." An iconic piece of Americana, the tune was originally written over 100 years ago by Scott Joplin, a black composer and son of former slaves, who would go on to become the most famous composer of ragtime music. Roy Eaton played the piece beautifully with the precise amount of liveliness it required.

The final piece before the intermission was a musically abrupt departure from the former pieces. "Runagate, Runagate," by Wendell Logan, draws from a poem of the same name written by Robert Hayden and captures the frenetic beat of the original work. The music was often dissonant but syncopated, all following the sometimes narrative, sometimes tenor accompaniment of Robert Anthony Mack.

After the intermission came a full round of spirituals, performed by the Hofstra Chamber Choir alongside the Hempstead High School Select Chorale. Despite the age differences of the participants, the high school chorale matched the college choir in a near professionallevel performances of traditional songs like "Ain-a That Good News" and "Deep River." The gospel portion was concluded by a rendition of "Go Down Moses," arranged by Hofstra sophomore Samuel Nathan, whose interpretation was both creative and true to the tone of the piece.

Ending the afternoon was the song cycle "Songs of Harriet Tubman," by Nkeiru Okoye. The music combined the words taken from Tubman herself with an inventive score, chronicling the legendary leader of the Underground Railroad from enslavement to freedom.

More than appropriate for Black History Month, "A Ride on The Underground Railroad" was an inventive and eclectic impression of a deeply important aspect of American culture.

 

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