Black History Month is most often about history with a capital ‘H,’ about the people, the movements and the macroscopic changes.
Other times, however, it allows insight to African American culture rather than just dates and faces. On Friday, the Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a terrific event entitled Ruby Lounge. Intended to recreate the artistic atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance, the event brought the speakeasy into the living room of Dodd House, the crowd so thick that students were huddled by the door to catch but a glimpse of the performers. The invitation explicitly stated to dress to impress, and consequently many students arrived decked out in 1920s regalia.
As diverse as the Renaissance to which they looked back, the pieces performed stunned the audience with their rich variety. After a brief display of artwork produced by students, Clay Artist in Residence and Director of Jazz Activities Andy Jaffe opened the night with a delightful recital of Harlem stride piano, an improvisational style born specifically during the Renaissance and championed by the likes of Fats Waller and James Johnson. Qadir Forbes ’15 gave the first spoken word performance of the night with a monologue about becoming “a devil in a Cadillac” out of Langston Hughes’ play Tambourines of Glory; his strong steady voice filled the room, both powerful and tempting.
Singing filled the lounge next, accompanied by a talented band: Phillip Parnell ’13 drumming, Aaron Freedman ’12 playing the clarinet, Daniel Schwartz ’13 on the piano and Jonathan Dely ’15 and David Burns ’14 alternating with the trumpet. Su-Young Kim ’14 performed first with a quietly soulful rendition of Billy Staryhorn’s jazz staple “Take the ‘A’ Train,” followed by a fantastic duet of “Lullaby of Birdland,” brought to light recently with a cover by the late Amy Winehouse, sung stunningly by Marcela Osorio ’15 and Felicia-Wrae Morgan ’15. Michelle Rodriguez ’12 took a more somber tone with Billie Holiday’s racially charged “Strange Fruit,” her delicate voicing working well to compliment the slow, sorrowful melody as Amanda Washington ’14 complemented her singing with an interpretive dance. The mood shifted rapidly, however, with the Gospel Choir’s rousing rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Finally, Martin Indiatsi ’13 crooned his way to a touching cover of “Haiti Cherie,” the nation’s unofficial anthem, which transitioned into Creole for its last flourish.
Poetry made a brief return, as Amlak Bantikassegn ’12 read his original “A Nerd’s Love Poem,” apparently inspired by laying in the shade in the Science Quad trees. Quirky and unusual, the recital was nonetheless pregnant with Bantikassegn’s forceful, impassioned drive, alternating between jaunty humor and ardent declarations.
Two unassailable jazz standards, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Everybody Loves my Baby” by Spencer Williams followed next. Rodriguez returned for the first song, trading her cautious elegance for confident swagger as she belted out the fast-paced, infectious hit. Amodhi Weeresinghe ’14 followed through with a sultry cover of the second classic, wowing the crowd as she danced to the band’s beat. The tone of the show dialed down afterwards, transitioning towards a slower, more graceful solo: Sevonna Brown ’15 intoned a sumptuous rendition of “Young, Gifted and Black,” Donny Hathaway’s version of the Nina Simone staple, garnering her a standing ovation from the jubilant audience. Next up was Neal Ellis ’14, who hesitantly stepped up to the microphone, humorously expressing uncertainty as to his ability to follow up such a successful performance. However, as he launched into the timeless classic “Feeling Good,” he dispelled any doubts by soaring to a superb crescendo and rivaling the likes of Michael Bublé and Muse’s Matthew Bellamy, both of whom have tackled the challenging song. His deep, eloquent voice stepped out alone at first, but when the chorus came around the band kicked in with a spot-on swell of bombastic sound, with the trumpet, piano and drums perfectly rendering the relentless melody that makes the piece so endearing.
Spoken word made a final appearance, as talented first-year Tirhaka Love ’15 recited a poem he recently composed upon visiting Harlem for the first time; all the while referencing the Renaissance greats such as Ellington and Hughes, he adopted the irresistible pace and delivery reminiscent of Beat Generation legend Allen Ginsberg, although less detached and more passionate. Fittingly, Brown concluded the ceremonies with an on-point cover of “At Last,” written in 1941 but turned classic in the ’60s by none other than Etta James. Brown’s robust, captivating voice expanded into the room, confidently nailing the performance and sending the well-dressed crowd home with much to ponder. All things considered, Ruby Lounge was not simply a themed performance recalling the golden age of Harlem: Showcasing fantastic talent and immensely pleasing pieces, it was also without a doubt one of the best shows of the year.