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Charles Sykes
African American Arts Institute

George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Angela Scharfenberger
African American Arts Institute

Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Thirty years and still grooving: IU's African American Arts Institute

Ensembles to present special concerts in April

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the walls of Indiana University's Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center vibrate and the hallways ring with a cacophony of rich and diverse sounds.

In one room, rhythm instruments lock into an R&B, soul or funk groove, and horns punch out syncopated licks to accompany live vocalists singing songs made famous by music legends Al Green, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, the Spinners and Aretha Franklin. In another room, 80 or so voices sound, at one moment blending in harmony on an old Negro spiritual, gospel or the music of composers like Undine Smith-Moore, John W. Work or Nathaniel Dett.

Next door, dancers repeatedly hear the count -- "five, six, seven, eight" -- that cues them to move their bodies to other rhythms and melodies which transcend boundaries within the African Diaspora.

That's what happens on class days for the music and dance ensembles of IU's African American Arts Institute, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this academic year.

The institute has established its legacy as a center for the promotion and preservation of African American culture. Its ensembles reach out to thousands of people each year, while enriching the education of their diverse student members. In April, the three ensembles will celebrate the milestone with Saturday night concerts at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre, located at 114 E. Kirkwood Ave. in downtown Bloomington.

African American Dance Company

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  • The African American Dance Company, directed since its inception by Iris Rosa, associate professor in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at IU Bloomington, will present its spring concert at 8 p.m. on April 9. Its theme will be "Rooted to Manifested."
  • The African American Choral Ensemble, directed since 1983 by composer James E. Mumford, will perform at 8 p.m. on April 16. Its theme will be "Extending the Tradition: Forging New Paths."
  • The IU Soul Revue, directed since 1999 by guitarist Tyron Cooper, will present a concert at 8 p.m. on April 23 with the theme "Puttin' on the Hits."

"At a time when the word diversity has affected the mission and structure of academic institutions, particularly those with predominantly white enrollments, our institute can be seen as a model of diversity," said Charles E. Sykes, AAAI's director since 1991. "Ensemble members have various levels of experience, and many are not music or dance majors. Yet, the directors find ways to meld students' abilities to shape them into unified performance products.

"The ensembles are ethnically diverse, but they all share in the mission of promoting and presenting black performing arts, and they are nurtured to understand and project the essentials which define black performance traditions," Sykes added.

The ensembles perform at least 40 times each academic year, in Bloomington and across Indiana and the country. Their performances reach people of all ages, races and social levels, in venues ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities, to churches and concert halls, and to social institutions such as hospitals and prisons.

African American Choral Ensemble

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One performance that had special significance was in January 1999, when the African American Choral Ensemble was invited to perform at Martinsville High School after the issue of racism was raised at a high school basketball game between Martinsville and Bloomington High School North. Some Martinsville players were accused of using excessive roughness, and fans were charged with making racial slurs, resulting in sanctions against the school.

According to news accounts, audience members held hands during the ensemble's final song, and many in the audience cried. The emotional reception gave even greater meaning to the program's focus on racial reconciliation.

The institute originally was a vision of the late Herman Hudson, founder of the Office of Afro-American Affairs and the Minority Achievers Program at IU Bloomington. He created the IU Soul Revue, the Choral Ensemble and the African American Dance Company in the early 1970s and decided that an institute should house them all.

Rosa recalled Hudson's passion about showcasing African diasporic culture at IU. "The vision that Dr. Hudson had was really to give minority students, particularly African American students, an opportunity to perform," she said. "They did not have to be dance majors, but he also wanted to have an ensemble that would professionally exhibit the talents of students in various aspects of dance."

About 150 students in the ensembles must first audition and then enroll in two-credit-hour courses offered in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. Students can re-enroll in the classes for up to six semesters. Another 20 students gain on-the-job experience working at the institute in performance, technical and managerial positions.

Many alumni of the institute have used their training as a foundation for professional careers as performers, producers, technicians and managers. They include Justin Johnston, who is in the current Broadway production of Rent, and others who have appeared on Broadway in Little Shop of Horrors and Dreamgirls. Two of the three members of the 1990s R&B group After 7 -- Kevon Edmonds and Keith Mitchell (Babyface's brother and cousin of his longtime partner, L.A. Reid) -- are alumni of the IU Soul Revue.

Angela Brown

Soprano Angela Brown, who recently received rave international reviews for her debut performance in the title role of Aida with the Metropolitan Opera, sang with the African American Choral Ensemble and served as a vocal coach.

Others have performed on stage or recorded with Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, LL Cool J, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Supreme Mary Wilson and Stevie Wonder. Many other alumni have gone on to successful careers in business, education, law and other professions, and recent ensembles have included the sons and daughters of former members.

Several outstanding scholars and musicians have held ensemble director posts with the institute, including ethnomusicologist Mellonee Burnim, composer William Banfield and the late Motown and "Funk Brother" keyboard player Johnny Griffith.

Since 2001, the institute has been housed in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, which provides well-designed rehearsal spaces with state-of-the-art technology. As Sykes looks back at how far the institute has come in three decades, he can see how much its past will shape the future.

"The ensembles are more ethnically diverse," Sykes said. "New music and dance styles have arrived on the scene, expanding an already rich performance repertoire. Audience expectations have been reshaped by rapidly changing technology, which has altered expectations placed upon performers.

"But what has not changed is the spirit and energy that early on was already emblematic of our performance groups -- they're still grooving."

Tickets for the spring concerts are available at the Sunrise Box Office, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave. General admission tickets cost $8 in advance for students and seniors and $12 on the days of the concerts. Adult tickets cost $13 in advance and $17 on concert days. IU students (who must have an IU ID) will be able to purchase up to two tickets in advance for $5 each. For more information, call 812-855-5427 or visit