There was a full house on Saturday, March 26 in Strong Auditorium, where the YellowJackets staged “Kenya Feel the Love Tonight.” The audience contained everyone from the entire UR Crew Team to a sizeable contingent of the trust fund brigade.
Let’s hope those rich alums donated considerably, because the boys in yellow used the concert to raise money for their most ambitious feat yet: a service trip to Kenya with a documentary film, that will accompany them “United We Sing.”
Through dialogue with a non-profit group, the ’Jackets learned about a youth choir in Maseno, Kenya. AIDS, poverty and other afflictions have ravaged the town, yet the music of the Maseno youth has reportedly rejuvenated the town’s spirit. By going to Maseno, the ’Jackets want to learn about the nature of music: both how it inspires and how it functions as a universal language.
The trip will also serve as a cultural exchange — the ’Jackets will both learn Kenyan folk songs as well as teach American tunes to the Maseno choir.
“We’re headed to Africa to bring back proof [that music can change lives],” senior and YellowJackets president Aaron Sperber said. “We may think we have it tough here in New York, but our troubles seem negligible when compared to the children of this small town. If music could bring them together, imagine what it could do for us.”
The guest roster at the concert made it clear that the ’Jackets’ journey is generating considerable interest. Nota, the a cappella group that won NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” flew all the way from Puerto Rico to volunteer their performance. Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the U.S., sat in the front row with his wife and son.
“I felt so honored during the concert, having the whole auditorium full of students, parents, deans, invited guests, the University’s president and of course Ambassador Odembo, which was the crown of the occasion,” freshman and Maseno native Lendsey Achudi said. “I, on behalf of my people, endorse their trip. I am really grateful for their concert and never before have I felt so proud of my little town.”
Finally, President Seligman, wearing his own yellow jacket, was there to open the show. Beaming and raising his arms almost in benediction, Seligman proclaimed, “We reach out our hand to Kenya,” adding that the ’Jackets’ project will utilize music as a “sign of hope.”
After that endearing, if not slightly over-the-top Seligmanism, the concert opened with a trailer for the YellowJackets’ documentary, juxtaposing epic shots of the Kenyan countryside with the group performing in locations such as elementary schools and Ambassador Odembo’s office. Once the video faded to black, the ’Jackets immediately launched into an opening medley of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and several other pop songs. They used “The Rhythm of Love” to introduce two members, freshmen Abhishek Sharma and Aden Brooks.
Though the newbies clearly enjoyed themselves, the group as a whole started off a bit pitchy, preventing them from fully portraying the trailer’s grand atmosphere. However, the concert changed direction and really kicked into gear with a soaring medley of Four Seasons songs, which finally nailed the epic tone the group was striving for. The ’Jackets remained in top musical form for the rest of the night.
Nota also wowed the crowd with 10 songs that showcased their signature blend of American pop songs and Latin beats. Polyrhythms, syncopated percussion (or, more accurately, vocussion) and extremely convincing trumpet imitations all figured heavily into Nota’s outstanding vocal performance.
For only being a six-man act, Nota had amazing dynamic control — there were a few instances where they seemed to equal the 13 strong voices of the ’Jackets. And though their sing-along performance of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” seemed to go over most audience members’ heads, Nota’s eclectic set list, which began with Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and ended with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” proved highly popular.
To be fair, “Kenya Feel the Love Tonight” had several weak points. Numerous audio problems occurred during the night — microphones cut out in the middle of songs, solo mics weren’t turned on fast enough and screechy feedback repeatedly plagued the performances. Some of the revolving stage lights even stayed fixed on the audience for too long, to a nearly blinding degree.
Despite the presence of Ambassador Odembo and Nota, the show started to drag near the end — twice, it seemed like the concert had ended, and audience members began to leave. And, building off of a precedent established at previous UR events (e.g., the Howie Mandel show a few months back), the audience showed off an absurd sense of humor, shouting out bizarre jokes and comments throughout the night. Seriously, what is it with the audiences at this university?
Still, despite the wacky audience members and logistical issues, the concert made for a great night’s entertainment and gave a clearer sense of the support for the Jackets’ trip to Kenya. The singers of Nota spoke quietly, but honestly, about their support for the YellowJackets’ project, which inspired them to fly all the way from Puerto Rico to Rochester.
On the other hand, in a witty and eloquent speech, Ambassador Odembo admitted that, at first, he had little interest in an a cappella group and even jokingly stated “I am not a fan of the color yellow.” But when he heard the ’Jackets perform for the first time, and when he learned that the singers plan to go to a tiny town rarely visited by Americans, Odembo realized that “they must be very special.”
Reflecting on this first encounter with the YellowJackets, the ambassador exuded real respect and enthusiasm. His anecdote showed that, even in political and philanthropic circles, music is a powerful force for bringing people together. If that isn’t a good omen for the ’Jackets’ trip, I don’t know what is.
By the time of the last song, the audience had gotten the vibe that something great is in the works. The final image of the night — current and former YellowJackets united in a medley of “Waving Flag” and “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa);” Ambassador Odembo dancing onstage; Carl Nelson, the venerable co-founder of the YellowJackets, waving his cane in time to the music and grinning with pride; and cannons firing off confetti — is still vivid days later. There was such a sense of jubilation and anticipation for the journey to come. It was a transcendent moment, and it makes me wonder what will happen when Rochester’s finest actually arrive in Kenya.
Gorman, Jr. is a member of the class of 2014.