Last night, my Mom and I attended this concert by the Á capella group Shades of Yale at Beth Am Synagogue, in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood. For Shades—a Yale University student institution since 1988, it was the final performance of their 10-day tour of the Baltimore region. And, happily, from the descriptions the performers gave during the concert, their experience of Baltimore is one they will never forget.
This was the first time my Mom or I had ever entered a synagogue. Beth Am is a beautifully appointed edifice. The Sanctuary was not unlike that in any Christian church that I have ever seen, from the arrangement of the pews and the balcony, to the high, arched ceiling, elegant in its simplicity. The only adornments were the altar and the Star of David-shaped light covers hanging from the ceiling.
Members of the congregation warmly welcomed us into their midst, and we were struck by the diversity of the audience, as well as the size. But most evident was that this was a gathering of families; folks of all ages filled the room.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg gave a Welcome, talking a bit about the commitment of this historic Baltimore synagogue to engage with and embrace the Reservoir Hill community that surrounds them [http://www.bethambaltimore.org/whoweare/neighborhood]. This concert, as well as an upcoming event with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop and her program OrchKids, is fruit of that commitment, and I want to learn more about it.
Going in, I knew this was to be a concert “celebrating music of the African Diaspora” [http://www.shadesofyale.org/#!about/clenr], but my idea of the Diaspora was of the past—spirituals, the Civil Rights era, etc. This millennial group, however, started things off with today’s Diaspora, singing none other than “Jam Tonight,” with harmonies, style, and moves that could give groups like Pentatonix and Take 6 a run for their money!
Shades continued to rock the Synagogue for a solid hour, with a set of 15 songs, tackling modern hits like Anita Baker’s “Body and Soul,” Eryka Badu’s “Certainly,” and Alicia Key’s “Fallin”; reaching back to Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.” They even took time to acknowledge their collaboration, the day before, with a group of young people from Baltimore, at Fired Up: The Concert at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum; members of “Fired Up” were in the audience last night, and the newly formed mutual admiration between the two groups was beautiful to see.
But Shades also gave us foot-stompin’ and hand-clappin’ renditions of “Soon Ah Will Be Done,””Wade in the Water,” and their climactic “Amen/We Shall Overcome,” in which they deftly combined the tune of “Amen” with the words “We Shall Overcome,” before breaking out into the original tune of the classic Civil Rights anthem.
After the concert, we made our way downstairs to the “Social Hall,” where our hosts at Beth Am had laid out tables of cookies, fruits, and juices, and there were opportunities to meet and greet members of the Shades as well as other audience members.
As Mom and I were preparing to leave, we struck up a conversation with one of the Shades, a young woman from Texas who marveled that a mother and daughter like us were so close and had come out for the concert. Mom shared with her that she had grown up just five blocks away from Beth Am and recounted the longstanding bond between Blacks and Jews in her old neighborhood—where the Jewish storekeepers so often lived alongside the Black clientele they served; and their shared history of being segregated—once blocked from living in certain areas of Baltimore.
Last night, I experienced the first of what I hope will be many more engagements with the shades of Baltimore, at the intersection of the past, present, and future.