Once a year, about 50 alumni of the University of Liberia Chorus come together to make music, reminisce, and raise money for the university’s music department. This year's performance is this weekend in New Haven.
The driving force behind this ensemble is the legacy of their late choir director, who helped elevate traditional Liberian music to the world stage. Agnes Nebo von Ballmoos studied piano at Temple University, and later ethnomusicology at Indiana University.
During her nearly 30 years at the University of Liberia, she developed the choir into one of the cultural gems of the country. Through eclectic programs that included classical repertoire, as well as African American spirituals and arrangements of traditional Liberian songs, the choir became internationally known.
“Liberia was the only African country that was invited to participate in the 4th International Choral Festival held in May 1974 at the Lincoln Center”, said Wayne Doe, who sings bass in the Alumni Chorus, “So the performance there received a lot of acclamation because of her.”
The choir criss-crossed the world through the '70s and '80s, but Doe said back-to-back civil wars in Liberia upended the choir, the university and the country.
“This has been a real, real blow to the country, it took us back many, many years,” said Doe. “The period of conflict actually set us back, where students were not even going to school. So all of the institutions pretty much shut down.”
Wayne Doe fled to the United States during the civil war. He now lives in Minnesota. Professor Von Ballmoos relocated to London, but died in the year 2000, five years before Liberia celebrated its first democratically elected president in decades. At the new president’s inauguration, former members of the choir were asked to perform. That was the genesis of what later became the University of Liberia Alumni Chorus.
“Once a year we come together and we sing in different states in the United States to raise funds, because as our major goal to create a performing arts center at the University of Liberia,” said Doe.
Proceeds from the concerts also fund music scholarships at the university. Doe said the repertoire stays the same year to year - staples from the 1970s and '80s that were chosen by Professor Agnes Nebo von Ballmoos. He said one of the crowd pleasers is the von Ballmoos arrangement of the traditional Liberian song "Am mbe" which means "We are one in Song."
The University of Liberia Alumni Chorus performs Saturday evening, September 21, from 7-9 p.m. at Yale's Battell Chapel.