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UMOJA Men's Chorus Releases New 19-Track Album

Group to Compete in Cincinnati's World Choir Games

June 27, 2012

Songs with names like “It’s All about Love” and “Life Is Beautiful” might be curious choices for a choral ensemble of prison inmates to sing, but as one delves into UMOJA’s third album, it becomes evident the singers truly believe the words they are singing — largely because they wrote them.

UMOJA Men’s Chorus from Warren Correctional Institution is a musical passion of Catherine Roma, professor of music at Wilmington College, who is into her third decade conducting the choir.

The group’s third album, Extend a Hand, was released this month in advent of the seventh biennial World Choir Games being held in Cincinnati in early July. UMOJA will compete in the Games’ most unique of categories, most notably those that cannot physically sing in Cincinnati.

Indeed, their performance venue will be the same place they recorded their CD — prison.

Recording the group meant battling the din of noisy air conditioners, the jingle-jangle of prison guards’ keys and the incessant hum of vending machines. While the acoustics certainly do not rival Cincinnati Music Hall, Roma said the performances are excellent and “offer an eclectic musical recipe of love and hope to help heal an ailing world.”

“Grown men will cry when they hear some of these songs — there are some amazing pieces,” she said.
Choir members composed a dozen of the album’s 19 songs.

“They write and sing about their personal struggles to make sense of the world,” she said. “The lyrics overflow with revelation, empathy and an unbroken determination to make life better, to connect to the outside world and search deep inside for meaning.”

Roma said a “deep spirituality” in the music transcends their world inside the prison walls.
Extend a Hand is UMOJA’s third album and follows previous releases of 1998’s Feel Like Going On and Do It for the Children in 2004. As with the previous albums, proceeds will be shared with southwest Ohio charities.

Beneficiaries include the Cincinnati Cooks! Freestore Foodbank, the shared Cincinnati ministry known as Churches Active in Northside, Children’s Defense Fund of Southwest Ohio, Clinton County Homeless Shelter and Grow Food, Grow Hope, Wilmington College’s community gardens outreach.

“There’s the notion that, through their music, they are able to give back something,” she added.
Roma said the goal of the compilation was to run the gamut of music from gospel and world music to a cappella spirituals. They had four recording sessions over 18 months beginning in September 2010 and invited guests to perform on several of the tracks.

Dayton singer Shannon LaRue solos on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Roma’s group MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir performs on four songs. Also, a former member of her Wilmington College Chorale, 2012 WC graduate Phillip Merritt, sings on “Keep Movin’ On.”

“UMOJA members showed incredible discipline and commitment,” she said. “I’ve never seen such motivation.”

Upping the ante during the recording was the prospect of competing the World Choir Games.

“They feel the excitement of something big that’s happening nearby and they’re going to be a part of it,” Roma said. “They’ve seen promos for the Games on television and realize, ‘I’m going to be involved in this once-in-a-lifetime musical opportunity.’”

Roma believes participation in UMOJA, which is Swahili for unity, brings not only elements of joy and self-fulfillment to the choir members but also can provide a sense of healing.

“They’re healing themselves and they understand the world outside the prison needs healing,” Roma said, noting that she subscribes to Quakers’ belief that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ in which every human being — no matter their station in life — possesses dignity, deserves respect and has value.

“The essence of hope, prayer, love of God, love of our natural world and a deep spirituality transcends their world inside the prison walls — all of this is reflected in their music.”

Copies of Extend a Hand are available at Wilmington College’s Office of Advancement and Music Department, Books-n-More in downtown Wilmington, MUSE’s Website (www.musechoir.org), cdbaby.com, Shake It Records in Cincinnati Northside, Sam and Eddie’s in Yellow Springs and through iTunes.

Also, Roma can be reached at her WC office at (937) 382-6661 ext. 368 and via email at catherine_roma@wilmington.edu.