Concert choir heads to ‘motherland’

Africa Unite!

They stood 38 strong, in horseshoe formation, with closed fists stretched toward the ceiling.

Beyond the sternness of their postures were revelations of mixed expressions, or maybe just overwhelming emotions.

“Alright, that’s it,” somebody shouted.

Then came down the fist, followed by a heavy sigh. And just as quick as the command gave way for relief, the anxious chatter that was present before practice had begun.

Everyone in the rehearsal room of the Foster-Tanner Music Building was excited. But, then again, why shouldn’t they be? They were on their way to Africa.

“I can’t explain how I feel right now,” Antonio Witherspoon said. “It’s an honor, we’re going back-back to the motherland.”

Soon after school reopened from winter break, FAMU’s Concert Choir was surprised with a special invitation. Rita Marley and the Marley Foundation invited the concert choir to participate in “Africa Unite,” the 60th birthday celebration of reggae icon Bob Marley. The event will also serve as a benefit for HIV/AIDS and various education projects throughout the continent of Africa and worldwide.

The invitation did not come as a total shock. According to Witherspoon, the concert choir president, the group knew beforehand about the invite.

“We found out unofficially in December,” said the 21-year-old junior business administration student from Hasting.

“But it was not until January we got the official invitation.”

However, with the excitement of the invitation came concerns about the cost. The concert choir did not have enough of the funds to cover the total cost of the trip.

According to Charlie Toomer, director of the FAMU Concert Choir, the trip cost about $70,000.

“The Bob Marley Foundation agreed to pay half, but that still meant we had to come up with the rest,” Toomer said.

Determined not to allow the opportunity to pass, the concert choir made a plea for help, urging the University and the Tallahassee community as a whole to donate and assist in raising funds for the trip.

And the community responded.

Donations from the University, community members, churches and individuals came pouring in. A small list of benefactors include FAMU’s Student Government Association, Bethel A.M.E. Church, Julian E. White and William Foster, among many others.

Friday was the official concert choir send-off, which began at 6 p.m. But the students, dressed in white sneakers and orange and green wind suits, had already stacked luggage in a large pile on the floor hours before the scheduled meeting time.

By the time the send-off was to begin, chorale members were positioned on a small platform preparing for a brief practice before departure.

“Without discipline, there is no success,” Toomer said.

“We’ve had rehearsal every day since the second week of school, practicing for 2 to 3 hours.”

“It’s been really challenging,” said Elissa Walker, 18, a freshman business student from San Francisco, “but not regretful.”

For a week and a half, concert choir members will enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.

For the duration of their stay they will reside at the historic Gihon Hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They performed at the opening ceremony Tuesday and will perform at the “Africa Unite” concert Sunday, in which half of the proceeds will go to survivors of the tsunami in Somalia.

Artists expected to perform include India.Arie, Kanye West and other popular African and Jamaican artists.

Minutes into practice, harmonious bell-like sounds took the attention of a few well-wishers standing alongside the wall of the rehearsal room. The choir began singing “Redemption,” a Bob Marley classic, which the group was asked to perform at the benefit, along with several other well-known songs.

Lililita Johnson stood in front of the choir for her solo. The music education student from St. Maaten Netherlands Antilles said it was hard to describe what the opportunity to be a part of such an event meant to her.

“It’s overwhelming,” said the 26-year-old.

“Bob Marley is like the James Brown of the Caribbean.”

“I grew up listening to his music and to be able to sing for his family… I have no words.”

But although much of the excitement was centered on the idea of traveling to distant lands, a lot of it had to do with being able to participate in the event for a greater purpose, to help serve others.

“We’re helping to raise money for AIDS. This is very important, very enlightening for everyone,” Witherspoon said.

“This celebration in going to bring about a change. I’m just glad FAMU could be a part of that.”

Contact Tiffany Pitts at