A musical escape through ‘Reconciliation: Songs of Peace and Protest’

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Jason Sibi Okumo will perform with other Berklee musicians at the M.V. Playhouse this weekend in "Reconciliation: Songs of Peace and Protest." Courtesy Jason Sibi Okumu.

Looking for a late winter pick-me-up? Or a positive way to relieve some current-events-related anxiety? Visit the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on Friday, March 17, for an evening of uplifting music in a program called “Reconciliation: Songs of Peace and Protest,” to be performed by a trio of students and alumni from the Berklee College of Music.

The culturally diverse group will draw on their various backgrounds for the song selections. The trio was brought together by Jason Sibi Okumu who, last year, came to the Vineyard to perform at the playhouse as part of Berklee’s African Club. This time around he has invited two fellow Berklee-ites  along. Mr. Okumu is from Kenya. He will be joined by Israeli-born Sagit Zilberman, who will sing and play a variety of instruments, and harpist and vocalist Allegra Cramer from the U.S.

The repertoire will represent music from each of the members’ homelands — the unifying theme being one of reconciliation. “I feel that especially in light of the attention on what’s been happening in the States, there’s been a lot of angst,” says Mr. Okumu. “We don’t always understand how to deal with angst in a way that’s productive. Music is the easiest way to connect with different cultures and different ideas. We can take a journey together to acknowledge what’s going on and find a more uplifting space.”

As with last year’s performance, Mr. Okumu will encourage audience participation: “Last time we had some singing circles, some improvisation, some clapping or dancing sections. We will definitely be using the audience as choir members.”

Among the songs that may be familiar to the audience are Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and the song “Asimbonanga” by Johnny Clegg, which called for the release of Nelson Mandela, and quickly became a South African antiapartheid anthem. Ms. Zilberman will contribute some Israeli songs of peace to the selection.

The unusual addition of the harp to the program will add another dimension. “The harp is usually considered a classical instrument,” notes Mr. Okumu. “But because our arrangements are really simple, it’s more of a spice than the main ingredient.”

Mr. Okumu continues to be a member of Berklee’s African Club, which has more than 100 student and former student members representing a dozen countries of both the continent and the diaspora.

The 2015 grad was raised singing the music of his native Kenya. “I loved the music because it was what I grew up on,” he says. “I took more of an interest while I was at Berklee. Other students introduced me to some beautiful sounds and instrumentations from their countries.”

Among the selections chosen for the the upcoming concert are songs from Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria. Currently Mr. Okumu is finishing up work on an album of original music in the singer/songwriter tradition.

Roberta Kirn, who is responsible for bringing the Berklee musicians to the Island, has a personal interest in the music of Africa. She has traveled in Kenya and South Africa, volunteering at a school in Kenya a few years ago. That experience, she says, helped her to develop a project called the Song Exchange Project, teaching and sharing music cross-culturally. For the past 20 years Ms. Kirn has been leading community sings and choruses on the Island.

In 2015 Ms. Kirn took a workshop at Berklee where she was introduced to Mr. Okumu. That was the beginning of a professional relationship which has since extended to her visiting his parents during her last trip to Kenya.

“Singing and songs have always played a big role in the African and African-American community,” says Ms. Kirn. “It’s really an important, vital aspect of the culture, and always has been.”

The three performers will also be working with high school and middle school students during their time on the Vineyard. They will appear along with student singers in a concert at the PAC on Thursday evening. “I’m really looking forward to teaching and sharing with the students,” says Mr. Okumu, “demonstrating ways that you can find harmony and peace between cultures and varying viewpoints. The theme of reconciliation deals with bringing people from an emotional point — instead of anger and frustration — to music.”

Jason Sibi Okumu and a group from the Berklee College of Music will perform uplifting music from various countries at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Friday, March 17, at 7:30. Tickets at the door $15.